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?


Notorious Ph.D. said...

Well, here's how it goes for me, in a four-semester, two-year cycle, at approximately 3 courses a semester. That's 12 courses, cycling through every two years.

--two-semester medieval survey, every year = 4 courses

--100-level western civ survey, every two years = 1 course

--300-level methods course for majors, every two years = 1 course

--300-level women's history course every two years = 1 course

--400-level senior seminar every two years = 1 course

--400/500-level course for the world history field, every two years = 1 course

--600-level graduate two-course sequence, every two years = 2 courses

And usually I can count on a course release at least once every two years to take care of that 12th course, but that may change. But with this schedule, you can see how I haven't yet developed a course in my geographic specialty.

How do I pick? What you see there are a mix of obligations to the department and the field. The women's history course is my one "fun" course, but it does fulfill a gender/ethnicity requirement for the students.

I have a bit of play in one of the two grad courses, and in the senior seminar. The seminar topic is always the Crusades -- not one of my areas, but it attracts students, and it's the one area where there are a *ton* of primary sources in translation. The grad research seminar can be whatever I want it to be, but I don't teach that one very often.

Not sure if this helps. In general: most courses are dictated by student demand/interest, but I try to play to my strengths whenever possible.

heu mihi said...

In terms of gauging sexiness, you might be surprised. This semester, I'm teaching a 300-level course on Chaucer, all in Middle English, on Monday evenings from 6-8:45 pm. A not-wildly-popular (I thought) topic, at a pretty weird and possibly unappealing time. I braced myself for low enrollment; we're a small college (fewer than 800 students), so it was entirely possible that the course wouldn't make.'s full. FULL. I have never heard of an English seminar *filling* at this college. So I have 15 students who are going to be stumbling and clawing their way through ME all semester--which is awesome, but also kind of an exhausting prospect.

So, you never know. Monasticism in the Middle Ages might just sound rockin' to your student population. (It sounds cool to me!)