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Organizing Your Teaching Materials

file cabinetA few weeks ago, a reader asked for some tips about a problem familiar to many instructors and faculty:

I’m only 2 years into 4-4 teaching and I’m drowning in course-related papers: binders of course materials, files, leftover student tests and final papers never picked up. I’m not sure what to save, and for how long, but I’m having nightmares of accumulating this much after 10 or 15 years. There wouldn’t be enough room in my office for anything else. I know, I know, everything can go paperless…yet I can’t seem to bring myself to throw out the paper entirely…

This reader’s feeling of being overwhelmed by the ever-increasing amount of course-related documents is not unusual. Even if your students submit their work in digital format and you grade and return it the same way, you still need to make decisions about how you’re going to organize and archive those files.

What do you need to save?

First of all, familiarize yourself with your institution’s policies regarding FERPA and the archiving of student work. Many universities, for instance, require you to keep student exam booklets for a specified number of years. You may also be required to archive other kinds of materials.

Even if it isn’t required by your institution, it’s probably smart to retain your own records of final course grades and how you calculated them, agreements for incompletes, or any other documentation related to student grades.

If you’re on the tenure track, you will probably need to provide copies of course syllabi, sample assignments, and student evaluations in your dossier. While preparing for tenure or the job market, it’s probably a good idea to keep anything you think you might need to provide or reference. However, most of these materials can be archived in digital rather than paper form. If you save (and back up) digital files of your syllabi, then you can just print out new clean copies of them for your tenure notebook.

What is paper good for?

Many of your teaching materials already exist in digital form or can be scanned for archiving. Depending on your available space and your personal preferences, you may wish to keep some documents in paper form as well.  For instance, while preparing for class, some people prefer to review last year’s lecture notes on paper rather than from the screen.  If that’s you, then file them, rather than printing them out twice.  But be realistic with yourself about how often you actually refer to these paper files. If you’re archiving your syllabi and course handouts on your computer, you probably don’t need paper copies as well, unless you’re on the tenure track and want to have paper as an extra back up.

You definitely should keep paper copies of any binding legal documents, such as:

  • job contracts or letters of employment
  • publication contracts
  • pre-tenure and tenure review evaluations
  • notifications of salary changes.

How do you organize your files?

Some people prefer not to spend time setting up or maintaining an organizational folder structure for their digital files, relying instead upon keyword searching and the consistent use of file names to find the materials they need. As I mentioned in the comments to that earlier post, I prefer having a structured system because it saves me from having to remember to search for a particular handout I used in a course I taught three years ago. My file system serves as a kind of externalized memory (and does a better job than my brain would for this task).

The basic structure of your filing system should be consistent in your filing cabinet and your digital archive. As you set up your system, you need to consider three main elements: chronology, category, and accessibility. Your personal organizational preferences and needs will determine which has priority in your system.

Chronology is an important element for organizing teaching materials, as you probably already mentally categorize some materials by given courses and semesters. For some people, the particular course (name or number) serves as a main division, subdivided by semester; for others, each semester serves as a main division, subdivided into courses:

option A:

  • ENGL 100
    • Fall 2008
    • Spring 2009
  • ENGL 200
    • Fall 2008
    • Spring 2009

option B:

  • Fall 2008
    • ENGL 100
    • ENGL 200
  • Spring 2009
    • ENGL 100
    • ENGL 200

Neither option is inherently better than the other; use whichever instinctively makes the most sense to you.

Teaching related materials typically fall into one of five categories:

  • Teaching Preparation: These are documents that you use and refer to as you’re preparing for class, and are typically not shared directly with students. These files might include critical bibliography, primary reading, lecture notes, an archive of related visual images, etc. For many instructors who teach different courses that cover the same texts or topics, some preparation files are best kept separate from course- or semester-specific materials.
  • Materials for Students: These are documents that you provide for your students, whether as in-class handouts, information on a course website, or files in a course management system. These might include the syllabus, study guides, supplemental readings, slides displayed in class and/or in the CMS, assignments, quizzes, and exams.
  • Student Work: Depending on the course, you may need to manage or document student submissions such as papers, journals, blog posts, oral presentations, quizzes, projects, posters, and exams.
  • Instructor Feedback: Your comments and/or grades might be returned to students on a physical copy of their work (such as a paper or exam booklet) or might be separate, and communicated to students via your CMS or other digital system. Whether you are using paper or digital formats, you may still need or want to keep a record of all feedback given to students during the course.
  • Institutional Materials: These might include official grade rosters, documentation of medical withdrawals, disability accommodations, grade adjustments, and any other documents related to your course or your students during that given semester.

Again, reflect upon your actual teaching practices in deciding whether these categories should each stand as main divisions in your filing system or as subdivisions. Consider these different examples:

option A:

  • Preparation Files
    • Topic 1
      • bibliography
      • lecture notes
    • Topic 2
      • lecture notes
  • Course Files
    • ENGL 100
      • Fall 2008
        • course handouts
        • student work
        • instructor feedback
      • Spring 2009
        • course handouts
        • student work
        • instructor feedback

option B:

  • Preparation Files
    • Bibliography
      • Topic 1
      • Topic 2
    • Lecture Notes
      • Topic 1
      • Topic 2
  • Course Files
    • Fall 2008
      • ENGL 100
        • course handouts
        • student work
        • instructor feedback
    • Spring 2009
      • ENGL 100
        • course handouts
        • student work
        • instructor feedback

option C:

  • Preparation Files
    • Bibliography
      • Topic 1
      • Topic 2
    • Historical Image Archive
      • 1800-1850
        • place 1
        • place 2
      • 1851-1900
        • place 1
        • place 2
  • Course Files
    • ENGL 100
      • Fall 2008
        • lecture notes
        • course handouts
        • student work
        • instructor feedback

option D:

  • ENGL 100
    • Preparation Files
      • bibliography
      • lecture notes
    • Handouts
      • Fall 2008
      • Spring 2009
    • Student Work
      • Fall 2008
      • Spring 2009
  • ENGL 200

Again, there’s no one right way to set up your system. Thinking about your research areas and teaching load as well as your personal organizational preferences will help you figure out which categories would be most helpful for you.

Accessibility depends upon your available storage and upon your own usage habits. Consider how much space you have for storing paper files, and the location(s) of your digital materials. Files that you need to refer to more frequently should be kept closer to hand, whether those are the materials from one or two previous semesters or key reference materials you use in all courses. Some instructors frequently refer back to previous semesters when preparing classes, and others don’t.

Make it easy on yourself: put the archive of student exam booklets that your college requires you to keep for five years in that slightly rusty bottom drawer of your filing cabinet. Chances are pretty good that you won’t be digging in that drawer very often. Put materials you reference frequently close at hand. Although in the digital world you probably don’t have the rusty drawer problem, if you have a large backlog of teaching materials, you might want to archive those from seven or more years ago to an external hard drive or online storage service. Having a more streamlined file tree on your computer will make it easier to locate the items you actually use.

Consistency is key

Name your files using a consistent system, depending upon your choice of file structure and your OS. For example: my daily teaching notes are simply named “class notes 8-22-10″ because I keep them in semester folders, which are nested within course folders, as in option A above. If I simply put them all in one folder for Fall 2009 or Teaching Notes, then I would need to name each file more specifically so as not to have conflicts.

Why change your system?

If you’re completely satisfied with your current system for managing and archiving your teaching materials, then don’t change a thing. But if you haven’t moved offices or changed computers in a few years, then it’s probably worth reviewing your system and evaluating whether it still works.

Changes in your teaching assignment, your use of technology, and your course content can require updating your system. For example, I used to maintain a file drawer of photocopied material from reference sources about authors I teach frequently in literature courses. I no longer do, for two reasons: first, the historical information I present to students has already been incorporated into my lecture notes; and secondly, all of that information (and more) is now available through digital databases. If I decide I want to expand my lecture on a given author, today I would go to a database, rather than to a photocopy, to look up additional information.

Do you have further questions or comments about organizing your teaching materials? Let us know in the comments!

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Raveesh Vyas]

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