Endings and Beginnings: Thoughts on Finishing the Semester

Steven Volk, May 3, 2015


Hundreds of silhouettes gradually light up over 90 seconds. Alfredo Jaar, “Geometry of Conscience,” Museum of Historical Memory and Human Rights, Santiago, Chile. Image at: http://www.designboom.com/architecture/the-geometry-of-conscience-memorial-by-alfredo-jaar/

A few weeks ago, the Chilean-born, New York-based artist, architect and filmmaker, Alfredo Jaar, was on campus to give a lecture which he titled, “It Is Difficult.” The title comes from William Carlos Williams: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/of what is found there” [Asphodel, That Greeny Flower and Other Love Poems: That Greeny Flower].


Jaar has often taken on the difficult task of turning news into poetry, and his own poetry into news. He is well known for memorializing victims of the “dirty wars” in Chile and Argentina. He designed a deeply moving installation at Chile’s Museum of Historical Memory and Human Rights called “Geometry of Conscience.” His contribution to the Parque de la Paz (Peace Park) in Buenos Aires, “Punto Ciego (Blind Spot),” commemorating the thousands of victims of the Argentine military juntas, is a landmark work among those who labor to construct an architecture of memory that goes beyond history and into conscience.


Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX

While these are themes Jaar has explored extensively, it was his last project, at the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas, that came to mind as I sat down to write this semester’s final “Article of the Week.” The Nasher invited Jaar to install a work in its garden to mark the museum’s 10th anniversary. The artist contemplated a number of related themes while puzzling over the project: anniversaries and the passage of time, the nature of the museum and its particular (often exclusive and exclusionary) audience, the city of Dallas and its changing populations, endings and beginnings.

With these in mind, he examined a map of Dallas with the Nasher highlighted at its center. He then located all the hospitals with maternity wards within a certain distance from the museum, and underscored those that served predominately African American, Latino/a, and undocumented populations. He ended up visiting three wards where, with the permission of the families involved, he audio recorded the sounds of the babies at their moment of birth – their very first cries.


Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I learned),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX: http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/art/exhibitions/exhibition?id=37

Back in the Nasher’s Sculpture Garden, he constructed a pavilion of pine and plastic in shades of green, four translucent walls reaching up perhaps 20 feet. Inside the structure, captains’ chairs are placed around the perimeter, and one sits in the quiet, listening to the murmur of the visitors outside until, at the same time every day, there is a sound, recorded and amplified: the sound of a child being born. It is played at the exact time that a specific baby was born. As part of the project, “Music (Everything I know I learned the day my son was born),” all the families that participated in the project were given a year-long membership to the museum. All the new-born babies were given a lifetime membership, Jaar’s way of addressing the fact that contemporary museums rarely serve all the populations that are closest to them.


Alfredo Jaar, “Music (Everything I learned),” Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas, TX: http://www.nashersculpturecenter.org/art/exhibitions/exhibition?id=37

For someone whose work has so often dealt with the memories of crimes against humanity, Jaar’s recent (2013-14) project reminds us of that there are no endings without beginnings, all of which is an (admittedly) round-about as well as extravagant way of signaling that as we come to the end of the semester, we also begin to think about new beginnings and where we go from here.

It was a difficult semester in many ways, often demanding that we address issues that were occurring far from campus (as well as some that are very much at home), and it is important not to ignore the toll that these events have taken on us as well as many of our students. So how do we end the semester in a way that also signals a new beginning?


A previous “Article of the Week” (Closing Time, Managing the End of the Semester, April 28, 2014) offered a number of suggestions for closing out the school year:

  • Revisit the course goals in your syllabus with your students, helping students think about why the course was structured as it was and the ways in which they can examine their own learning from that perspective.
  • Encourage students to think about how they have worked to achieve their own goals set at the start of the semester: have your students write a short (anonymous) self-evaluation of their learning, reflecting on their participation in the course.
  • Have students create a summary concept map of the course that visually traces main themes and subsidiary branches.
  • One instructor has her students present a short lesson for the class on the issue, topic, or theme they found most difficult or challenging during the semester. It is an excellent way for students to prepare for exams, since teaching a subject is often the best way to learn about it.
  • Students in small groups can discuss how their understanding has changed over the course of the semester, focusing perhaps on critical moments in their learning.

David Gooblar, at PedagogyUnbound.com, suggests having students write letters to those who will take the course in the future. They can reflect on its high and low points, offering advice to those who will sit in their seats the next semester, addressing in particular what they wish they had known going in to the class, what they would have done differently, and what future students might want to know about the course and the instructor. As Gooblar adds, “Try including specific questions in your prompt. The idea is to turn the letter-writing exercise into a kind of course review that could be useful in helping students prepare for the final exam. Ask: What are the most important aspects of the course subject? What were the most insightful readings, and why? What remains unclear at the end of the semester? Having students answer such questions is a great way to get them to review the material. Writing the letter naturally encourages students to think back to where they were at the beginning of the semester. It puts into their head the distance they’ve traveled between then and now, asking them to take stock of exactly what they’ve learned.”


uneduex-along the lines of a legacy of goodbyes. CC-Flickr

Finally, some advice for you, the teachers:

End of semester reflection from your point of view: this is a good time to write down (while you still remember it!) what worked and what didn’t; what you should reword or redesign in your assignments, what parts of the class produced just the results you had hoped for and what was confusing or disorganized?

Terri Givens, writing in Inside Higher Education, offers 10 points to help new faculty cope with the end-of-semester stress (with some of my own comments added), but they seem just as appropriate for old-timers as well:



1: Clearly communicate to others that it is crunch time – some things will have to wait;
2: Relax your standards in non-essential areas of life – let the laundry pile up; let local restaurants take care of your dinners;
3: Say no to every service request from now until the end of the semester – if administrators or chairs haven’t figured out all you have to get done, they should!
4: Every day needs a plan – lists are always great, even better now: checking off tasks you have done can bring a sense of accomplishment – you are making progress;
5: Write for 30-60 minutes each day – don’t drop your writing completely, even if it tails off;
6: Only check e-mail one time per day (max) – OK, you’ll need to pay attention to some student requests, but limit your time answering email.
7: Eliminate unnecessary electronic distractions – unplug.
8: Take care of your body: walk, exercise, eat well, sleep!
9: End every day with gratitude and a treat.
10: Did I say: take care of your body? Walk, exercise, eat well, sleep!

Send me your own methods for closing out the semester.

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