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One of the problems of course creation

15 August, 2007

One of the problems of course creation

It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I’m working on syllabi, because I’ve not been able to settle to writing. I’ve got a 4+ course load (the 5th meets for one hour a week) this term. Two courses are new, upper-division, and I’ve never actually taught either of them. One, thank goodness, is in one of my specialty areas. The problem is, I have an idea of what should go in this course (and honestly, what should go into this course at an upper-division level is half the course, done in real depth. But I am the only Europeanist, so that means I have to keep a bunch of courses in rotation over a two-year cycle. Well, actually, I can do anything I damned well please, but I think it’s fairer to the students to make it possible for them to count on courses being offered every couple of years.

The fun thing this time is that, out of the eight courses (six discrete preps) I’m teaching this year, six are service courses. Three are entirely new preps. I need to make these courses good as distinct courses. They have to hold up to standards that would match them to other universities’ standards. But one of the things that I’ve realised is that faculty at the ‘top’ universities teach fewer courses and often have TAs. I’m desperately torn between wanting to assign the kind of reading that I think appropriate, based on my own experiences and by surveying my peers, and thinking, “OMG!!!! I can’t get all this reading done! And there’s no time to discuss all the reading, and the students will be pissed if I ask them to read this stuff and we don’t. Right — that last part is silly. Reading is going to be good for their understanding, and we’ve gone many a decade, if not century, where students have had to read and integrate information without the prof going over it all.

And then there are the written assignments. How to fit them in to a course schedule that makes sense, when you know that you’re screwed if you don’t spread out the marking … Is it better to mark a bunch of short assignments constantly? or a bunch of big ones? How do we balance rigor with the time constraints of our jobs and lives?

I know lots of you are dealing with this. It’s nothing new. But I have to admit, I’m starting to understand why the people who teach 3-2 and 2-2 are so much more productive. And I’m starting to think I really want to be one of those people.

I have brought some of this on myself. I am trying to help build a program. But there is only one of me, and lots of students. Turns out, I have half again to double the number of students enrolled are two of my colleagues. But you know, I’m looking at this year and thinking it may kill me.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 August, 2007 3:33 pm

    I long ago decided not to assign any reading that was not directly attached to an assignment. Exception: I do use a text book for 1st year world history, and the first half of Islamic Civilization.Don’t kill yourself trying to do things when you don’t actually have the resources to do them. Doing a good job on a smaller number of themes will benefit your students more.

  2. 15 August, 2007 4:08 pm

    Well, I think that I am going to cut out a big chunk of Polybius at this point, and maybe some of Herodotus … except this stuff is so interesting!Well, that and I feel an obligation for the class to be rigorous.

  3. 15 August, 2007 8:14 pm

    My great realization was when I realized that few of my undergraduates were like me as an undergraduate: they don’t read as much, and they are not always comfortable reading. Especially with original texts, which you have to teach them to read….I’d just think about what “rigorous” means. It could mean that they really read some primary sources, learn how to think historically about them, and write well. They don’t have to know everything about everything.And you are right about the relationship of teaching load to productivity. I’d give anything to be teaching stuff relevant to my research!

  4. 15 August, 2007 9:00 pm

    I agree with Steve and Susan – you’re teaching skills as much as content, and you can do that just as well (and probably more memorably for them) with more depth and less breadth. It’s really tough when you know the material well enough to know the works you want to include, but choose sparingly what you think will stick with them longest.

  5. 16 August, 2007 2:33 am

    Something that many of the faculty at Former College said was that it’s important to do more with less. Now, I don’t have an especially positive attitude to FC right now, but I actually think they were right on this. I’m at the point where I’d rather have a shorter reading assignment and have the students actually read it and then we all really discuss it, rather than the longer assignments they don’t read and we don’t have time to cover anyway. I know there’s a long tradition of not going over everything with students, but I prefer us to discuss almost everything that I assign, because I don’t have any evidence that they’ve read it otherwise. I don’t really think any more that rigor is directly related to length of reading assignments – it’s what you do with the pages. (Yeah, I’d probably think 10 pages was wimpy, but if it was 10 pages of Aquinas on the existence of God? That could be a LOT of work!)I also found that it REALLY makes a difference to my life to prep shorter assignments, especially if the course is new. Because even if I’ve read an assignment before, I always review it before class, and when I assign “rigorous” readings I find myself cursing myself at points in the semester. Anyway. I think it’s more important to create a schedule that allows you to thrive and not burnout, because if you burnout you’re not doing ANYONE any good in the long run. Especially when you’re doing new preps – you will teach these courses again, and your success as a teacher is not based only on your performance in these courses. (If you get it wrong, you can try it again!)Of course, I might not be a very good person to listen to. 😉

  6. 16 August, 2007 3:04 am

    I’m not quite such a minimalist as some of the others here, but I do get very specific about what I expect the students to do for their reading — which pages need to be read in the texts to keep up with the course progress, what techniques they need to apply in general to succeed in independent reading, what key terms, people and questions they need to keep in mind for each assigned reading, etc.That said, I still have to do a great deal of handholding and I use the opening part of class to question them (okay, interrogate them) about interesting angles they should have gotten from the readings they’ve already done. So there’s darned little lecturing going on in my classroom these days and a lot more back-and-forth.That said, even with 3-2, I’m feeling overwhelmed. I have almost 90 students in my late medieval survey, over 70 in the British survey and my senior seminar’s now at about 21. Registration continues apace, so those numbers will only go up!

  7. 16 August, 2007 3:38 am

    Just do your best and consider this a learning experience. Each institution has its own culture of what is expected but you also want to remember to be yourself. Students will respect high standards – as long as they understand what you want them to do.

  8. 16 August, 2007 4:23 am

    Well, I’ve cut half of Polybius, and I had already intended to assign the text on an “as needed” basis. Hmmmm. Must alter above. But thanks, everybody. I am wishing I hadn’t asked them to buy so many books …

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