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Teaching Question

8 February, 2008

Teaching Question

For the first time, I am teaching an upper-division course in my area of expertise. I am really not happy with it. I let myself let the reading assignments define the pace of the class, and the course is consequently moving too slowly. I’m using Innes’ new book from Routledge, and it has some great qualities, but I am realising it just isn’t balanced enough. It’s a Rome and Barbarians book masquerading as a coherent text.

So I am feeling like I need to add more lectures and pick up the pace. But I don’t want the students to feel too burdened (they aren’t reading what I would call a lot, but it’s not a light load, either.)

So, denizens of the blogosphere — what happens when you realise you need to re-vamp a course that isn’t quite working? Do you just leave it and re-vamp the next time? or do you hope for student patience and rearrange during the semester? How do you do it without looking like an idiot? Give me the benefit of your wisdom, bitte?

Note: the students know this is a new course, and I have already re-structured one thing, having given them input on it. I also do try to do regular checks on what is and isn’t working, and why, because they seem to value having some input.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 February, 2008 9:23 pm

    If you haven’t specified day-to-day class activities in your syllabus, adding more lectures shouldn’t be too big of a deal.Another possibility would be to do in-class discussion of primary sources; I often photocopy something of 2-6 pages and just have them read right there in class, then discuss either in small groups or as a whole class. That won’t pick up the pace, precisely, but can give a better balance (if, of course, there are suitable texts available).Waiting till the next time you teach the class to revamp might leave you (and maybe even them) bored and frustrated for the rest of the term. Given that the students know it’s a new class, I wouldn’t worry too much; you’ll look like a better teacher if you’re willing to change on the fly when something isn’t working. As long as you don’t change stuff every week!

  2. 8 February, 2008 9:28 pm

    I think I’d probably try to keep the reading schedule — unless your powers of persuasion are substantially better than mine, adding significant readings mid-semester is a vicious uphill — but there’s no reason you can’t shift your lectures to a more critical stance and broaden the material. I’ve got something of the opposite this time: I think I’ve miscalculated the reading and writing load on the excessive side, but I don’t see how to fix it without completely destroying the course and making myself look like a spineless idiot.

  3. 8 February, 2008 9:33 pm

    I think you can re-arrange, as long as it doesn’t cost them money (e.g, buying more books or having paid for a book they don’t use), doesn’t significantly shift the workload (e.g., don’t add a paper or convert a paper to an exam), and ideally not change the major due dates too much. I think students make their decisions based on things like that, so to change them is not quite fair. But topics and small readings, shift to lecture—all fair game. Especially if you can cut their workload.I once had to redistribute an updated syllabus so that students could study for the final without shuffling the three syllabus change handouts. Better to stop and revamp now than let that happen.I would not be overly concerned about looking like an idiot, but I tend to assume that students will assume that I know too much and am juggling too many concerns to get it right every time, rather than that they will assume I don’t know what I’m doing.

  4. 8 February, 2008 9:45 pm

    this is a random story but I once took a class that completely wasn’t working, something that was increasingly obvious to all of us. the natives were restless. then, at mid-semester, the prof announced that things weren’t working, that he’d planned too much material and that after the midterm, we would return to the front of the syllabus and cover the material again, with students presenting it this time instead of him.we were shocked. we were amazed. we were annoyed for about 12 seconds and then we were relieved. I guess the point is students can roll with a lot if it isn’t complicated (endlessly changing the syllabus is just ….eh) and the benefit is clear.

  5. 8 February, 2008 10:45 pm

    Thanks all — I actually hadn’t thought about adding any extra readings for them, but rather adding more work for me. I’d planned it so we had a lecture day and a primary source discussion day each week. But it looks like I need to add things on my end that won’t fit in with the readings. That’s not a big problem, except that it will be hard for them to assimilate all the info. Maybe I should just say, “read the text as quickly as you can”?

  6. 8 February, 2008 11:51 pm

    @ahistoricality—I always build in readings that I intend to cut, just to trick the students into thinking I’m really nice. So I think you can cut readings. Another way might be to assign individual readings–e.g, each day just 1 or 2 people read the extra reading and present it to the class, so that the material is covered but the load is lightened, and you can cover it up by saying you want them to practice a different skill (writing an abstract, or presentation). A friend of mine, having decided 4 papers and 2 exams was too much, went to a “you have to write 2 of the 3 remaining papers” system after the first paper.

  7. 8 February, 2008 11:54 pm

    I don’t think you should worry about your lectures being too much info for the students to assimilate – class material is class material, they still have to assimilate it, whether it’s the discussion on their readings or something else. Anyway, I think changing stuff around is completely legitimate too, especially following pronetolaughter’s guidelines. I suppose one of the questions I’d ask though is: do the students perceive the course as problematic in the same way that you do? If they – like Anastasia’s classmates – are restless and discontented, they’ll probably think some restructuring etc. is wonderful. If they’re fairly content, restructuring might be a little harder.

  8. 9 February, 2008 12:09 am

    NK — The students seem to agree that we are moving too slowly, too. Hmph.

  9. 9 February, 2008 3:04 am

    I’ve done it so much my students semi-expect it. This term I discovered (to my horror) that the standard text was unbelievably bad. So the second day of class I told them to return their texts to the bookstores quickly for a full refund. We then redesigned the course. I’ve done that quite a bit, and the students really appreciated being in on the process. By explaining the problems up front and redistributing the responsibilities, they learn all kinds of things about learning and flexibility as well as the subject. I say go in, be open and give yourselves a class period to redesign the course.

  10. 9 February, 2008 5:06 pm

    This quarter, for the first time ever, I decided to teach a very slowly-paced class with much less reading than I usually assign. I love it so far. My strategy has been to give lectures that fill in background information on historical developments, authors’ backgrounds, circumstances of the text’s composition, &c. Some lectures also present broader analyses of the class theme. About half the classes are devoted to discussion, and from the very beginning I told them that this would be a class about how to read, historically. Sometimes we do close readings of a short extract, discussing as many meanings and nuances as we can find. Sometimes we compare 2 passages, from the same or different authors. And sometimes I take them through an assigned text, highlighting sentences and paragraphs that show the main strands of thought. I love it, and so far I think they do too. Lots of participation. I think it’s fun to do more with less, and it sounds like your class could also move in this direction.

  11. 9 February, 2008 5:24 pm

    good idea! Thanks!

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