(Originally published here on Inside Higher Ed.)
In my department, the courses that I get to teach depend heavily on registration. Some of the course offerings that fulfill general education requirements are stable from semester to semester; others that cater to students who seek a major or minor in my field fluctuate significantly.
This spring, my department chair asked me if I’d be willing to teach a specific course this fall because our department needed to offer it and there really wasn’t anyone else to teach it. The course already existed in the university course catalog, and the faculty member who has taught it has now left the university. It is outside of my area, but I’m agreeing to do it anyway. As far as a starting point goes, I don’t have much, and the course title means very little to me.
Therefore, I’m working through how to prep a course that is outside my area of expertise, that I’ve never previously taught and that, to be honest, I would never have suggested offering in the first place. I’ve decided to take on the challenge by asking myself a series of key questions.
What does this course title even mean? I started with a fairly big picture question: If I were taking this course, what would I expect to learn? The title of it is vague enough that I’m going to have to ascribe meaning to it. (Think something along the lines of Introduction to Latin American History. How do you even start deciding what content to include?) To promote the course, I’m going to add a subtitle. I don’t think prospective students will necessarily grasp immediately what the course will consist of, so I’m going to help them out by making a poster and adding my own titular flair after a colon, as we so often do in academe. (Now it will read more like: Introduction to Latin American History: The Cold War Era and Beyond.)
What do I want the students to get out of it? Or, if they were to only learn three things, what would they be? Once I answered that question, I decided to use those three main ideas as the units of the course. Our semesters are 15 weeks long, so that gives me a little less than five weeks per unit (when one accounts for the course introduction and finals period) to drive home those main ideas. If we return to the sample course title I proposed above, I can see dividing the units one of two ways: 1) geographically, perhaps into something like Central America, the Southern Cone and then the Andes region, or 2) temporally, separating the course into three time periods where each unit ends with an important event I want to emphasize.
Will I use a textbook or some other form of readings? Finding a singular textbook that encompassed all three units was nearly impossible. The only one that I could find was frustrating in its lack of diversity. It is an edited anthology, which as a genre lends itself well to intro-level courses. The students will get an overview of a lot of material from scholars who represent a variety of fields. However, all of the essays were written by men, and not one essay was written by a person of color. In general, I prefer to implement more inclusive texts in my courses. That said, this one book does a decent enough job covering the material I had hoped to include on the syllabus, so I’m going to make it work.
Another crucial consideration: I try to minimize the amount of money my students will need to spend on books for my courses. Many of my students come from low-income backgrounds and actively take the cost of materials into consideration when enrolling in courses. That phenomenon is dramatic enough that the university has started to incentivize exclusive use of open-access material in courses. By choosing this book, I could significantly reduce the cost of the course for my prospective students and keep it very budget friendly.
Also, using this book will help me control the time I spend prepping. Due to ongoing shifts in curricular design, my department chair is unable to tell me whether or not I’m likely to ever teach this course again. That means I don’t have much incentive to curate a set of smaller readings from scratch. While teaching is an important part of my tenure evaluation, I can’t afford to spend weeks looking for multiple readings for a course I may never teach again.
So I’ve devised the following solution to my textbook quandary: I’ll use the anthology I found as the foundation of the course and will supplement it with open-access material and additional readings that are available to students for free at our institution’s library. Through selected readings, I can incorporate diverse perspectives on the material to balance out the otherwise homogenous anthology. The students and I will directly address the inclusivity problems of the book during class, and I plan to devise an assignment that empowers them to find additional perspectives that one might consider to be missing from the central textbook.
How do I want the students to be evaluated? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about using upper-division courses to expose students to what research in my field looks like. I want them to see that higher education is about learning to ask meaningful questions and solving the puzzles that are absent from their textbook. This course might be the perfect opportunity to make that point for two reasons. First, the topics covered will be broad, which will allow students a variety of points of entry. Like all good research projects, I hope the students will base theirs in genuine curiosity — and this course should allow for that. And second, because I won’t be able to deliver much of my research expertise, I can use the course as an opportunity to package researcher expertise. In other words, I can equip students with skills that will carry over in the event their future course work requires an inquiry-related product or extensive writing assignment.
My challenge to the students will be to develop a research project they can mobilize into another opportunity, such as a presentation at a conference that includes undergraduate participants or a longer, thesis-like project for academic credit. In other words, I want them to leave the class with something tangible they can be proud of and might be able to carry into their futures. (In my next essay, I’ll describe a tool kit for teaching about research that will contain more information on this topic.) This research project will make up their primary category of evaluation. I’ll base the remainder of their evaluation on the nebulous category of “participation,” which usually consists of doing the readings, preparing discussion questions, asking questions in class, working actively in groups and so forth.
In general, I prefer evaluation methods that allow students to work on things that interest them. Other evaluation methods that allow for that might include unit papers where the students are giving somewhat open-ended prompts, group presentations or asking each student to serve as a class discussion leader.
How can I create a syllabus that allows me to stay flexible? This last question is especially important when teaching a new class. Inevitably, there will be something I didn’t think through or I wish I had done differently. Those of us with limited teaching experience might make the mistake of assuming the students have no prior knowledge on a topic, when the truth is they do — and therefore, the course has been pitched “too low.” In contrast, those of us who taught at selective institutions might suffer from pitching the course “too high.” If this happens, I may need to spend more time going over foundational material or addressing the mechanics of writing.
When I’m teaching a course for the first time, I like to leave a couple of dates sprinkled throughout the term that are unscheduled. These flex dates can be used to catch up on material if I perceive we’ve fallen behind. If things are going smoothly, I can also develop a workshop-style class meeting where I give the students new material at the beginning of the meeting. Striking the balance between being prepared and leaving space for flexibility is crucial.
While they certainly shouldn’t dictate every decision I make, the course will inevitably end with student evaluations. Not surprisingly, various studies confirm that “instructor enthusiasm” is one of the most significant variables students take into consideration when evaluating a course. So, while this course may not be my ideal teaching situation, I’m making it a point to incorporate material that will keep me excited. Throughout the syllabus, I’ve found ways to make connections with my research interests, and for one class meeting, I’ve decided to outsource the enthusiasm maintenance: I have asked a guest scholar to deliver a lecture and Q&A via Skype.
I’m confident that a lot of questions I don’t have answers to will arise, and I’ll have to flex the skill set that requires me to say, “What a great question! I’m not sure about that, but I can’t wait to look into it and get back to you.” How do I intend to solve that problem? I’m going to write questions down and follow up with slides the following class — and maybe learn a thing or two myself.