Saturday, September 13, 2014

What Makes a Good Course Good

During advising sessions at my school, I’m sometimes asked, “Will that be a good course?” 
It’s a funny question, particularly when they’re asking about one of mine. Do they expect me to say, “No, that course I’ve designed and I’m offering is going to suck.”
Sometimes a course does end up being bad (and sometimes I’ll wonder what I was thinking putting certain works on the syllabus), but no teacher thinks it will be before the first day.  We’re fundamentally, perhaps delusionally, optimistic.  Each new term and year, we think, “This time it’s going to be great.”
But, what I actually tell students who ask, “Will that be a good course?” is “I don’t know.”  I hope so.  I’m excited enough about the material to dedicate sixteen weeks to it, but we won’t know until we get started.
            What makes some courses good is not just the professor and material, but the students who take it.  I can teach the exact same lesson, and it will go over great in one section and terrible in another.  Did I change in the ten minutes between classes?  No, the students did.  (Similarly, I can read the same poems in, mostly, the same manner, and one audience will be enthusiastic and one will make me wonder if the microphone is on.)
The engagement and commitment of the students contributes to the quality of the course and, consequently, to the quality of the education of those involved.  So, when someone is late or hasn’t done the work, they don’t owe me an apology; they owe it to their colleagues because they’re not just diminishing their own education, but also the education of those in the room.  Similarly students who make contributions and enthusiastically engage ideas are enhancing the experience of others.
Courses, particularly ones that rely heavily on small group interactions, are collaborations.  They are discoveries and shared experiences.   In this way, they’re similar to other things.  I’ve loved some movies because of the people that I went with or because the audience was into it. 
To ask “will that be a good course?” is like asking, “Will it be a good party?” “A good wedding?”  “A good marriage?”  It depends on the people involved.

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