Saturday, January 22, 2011

An Interdisciplinary Major

Although my college is small, it does have a major in medieval and Renaissance studies. As I'm getting settled in here in my second year, students are increasingly coming to ask me about the major, so I've had to get familiar with its requirements.

And its requirements are a little odd. That may have to do with the program's history--it seems to have been somebody's pet program, years and years ago, before being taken over by a committee. One of the oddities is that students have to jump a bunch of hurdles. They can't simply declare the major, but have to write a proposal explaining their course selections and outlining their capstone project, even though as sophomores they're 12 to 18 months away from doing that capstone project.

The major is also explicitly designed to be interdisciplinary. They have to take medieval-ish courses from at least four disciplines, and can't have too many from any one department. The problem is, we're so small that some of those courses aren't taught very often. It is easy for students to get courses in English and history; the courses in religion and music and art history and philosophy are harder to fit into their schedules.

On the one hand, because prospective majors have to go through some hassles and plan carefully, they tend to be good, organized, and highly motivated. Thumbs up! On the other hand, the difficulty of setting up the major certainly discourages some people, and places a burden on even highly motivated students. There's one student who's taken a slew of courses in history and English lit and a couple in art history. However, s/he still needs a course from a fourth discipline, and fitting it into his/her schedule is being harder than it ought to be. Just how interdisciplinary does this major have to be, anyway? Might it be time to think about revising the major requirements?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Curriculum angst

I started and abandoned several posts in the last month. I hope to post a little more often this year, but we shall see.

I am teaching an advanced topics course next year and have not yet decided the topic. Now I'm down to the wire, to the point where the registrar is calling me at my office to tell me to get them the description. I have gone round and round about this course and overthought it just about every way I could overthink it.

I have had a lot of ideas for courses I could teach. A lot of them, although interesting subjects, are ones that I don't have the clearest idea how I'd teach. That is, I don't have a great sense of what questions or problems I'd organize the course around, and in most cases that would require me to do quite a bit of work to get up to speed on the scholarship in the area before I'd feel confident that I could do a good job teaching the course. If I felt a great and burning passion to teach a particular subject, I'd go for that, but I don't. Since I've already had opportunities to develop and teach advanced topical courses here, I've "used up" the ideas I once felt most intense about.

So in picking a subject, I'm trying to balance my interest in a topic against how much work it would take to prepare. I'm also worried about student interest. My courses have, by and large, drawn a lot of students, but this worry pushes me a bit toward "sexier" sounding courses. Unfortunately, those are often not the ones I feel best prepared to teach.

Finally, thinking about next year's courses forces me to think about my longer-term teaching plans. I teach 6 courses a year; half of those are bread-and-butter survey classes. So I have 3 upper-level courses a year to play around with. I want to have courses I repeat regularly, but I also want to have the freedom to introduce new topics as they interest me, and balancing the two gets tricky very quickly.

After spending weeks toying with one course idea after another, sketching out a five-year plan, feeling disgruntled with the five-year plan, worrying about how to balance my teaching among introductory, intermediate, and advanced courses, I throw up my hands. I think I'll propose a course on monasticism in the Middle Ages. It's... wait for it... actually my area of expertise, unlike 90% of the ideas I've come up with, and I already have a fairly strong idea of what sort of readings I'd assign. I do worry about how to sell it to students--but on the other hand, religious studies courses at my school are pretty well attended, so that might not be as difficult as I fear.

If you actually read through all that, thanks. If you're faculty, how do you decide what courses to teach? How much freedom do you have to make that decision? Have I missed some ways I could have agonized about and overthought this decision?