First Day Fragments: Spring 2023

I usually do “first day fragments” to mark the start of the fall semester, but here on the first day of the spring term I find that I also have a few topics rattling around that are also worth exploring. Only time will tell whether this is a one-off or a new spring-semester routine.

Course design is an exercise in omission. And the more of a survey the course is designed to be, the more this truism cuts close to the truth. This has been on my mind over the last week while preparing for the upcoming semester. Even before the pandemic I had begun adopting a “less is more” mantra in the classroom, and doubling down on core questions and fundamental skills. But I also like big and open-ended questions, both to structure the course and to set as assignment prompts.

This semester I will be teaching upper-division survey courses on Ancient Rome (Romulus to Romulus Augustulus, in theory), Ancient Persia (Achaemenid to Sassanid), and then a first-year seminar on speculative fiction. Enormous topics, all.

Adding material to these courses is the easy part. It would be easy, for instance, to have the students read Beowulf and Le Morte d’Arthur, skip forward to Lord of the Rings, and then do something contemporary. Or just watch the movies. Or I could have decided that we’re going to do an entire course on the thousands of pages in Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty novels. But neither of these options fit with my objectives for the course.

The challenge is finding the right balance. The entire extent of Tolkien that we are going to read will be “On Hobbits” and two short pieces of commentary about Rings of Power. We’ll read Ken Liu’s brilliant short story “Paper Menagerie,” but nothing from his longer works. Ditto for N.K. Jemisin’s “The Ones Who Stay and Fight,” which I’m using both as a counterpoint to Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” and and as a way to close the semester on a note of optimism after an emotionally challenging set of readings.

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All three of my courses this semester are new preps. This is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand, new preps make for a lot of work. They require compiling materials as you go through the semester, writing presentation slides, and deciding on how you want to present the material, even when approaching topics that you know well. Some of the activities are going to flop, or maybe the scope of the course needs to be changed. The course wobbles a little, because it has not yet settled into its foundations. A graduate school professor told me once that he believes a course only reaches its mature form in its third iteration.

On the other hand, I sometimes find that certain in-class activities and readings work best the first time I assign them. This is in part because I am forced to spend more time with the readings and preparing the activities, which means that everything is fresher, but I also find something magic in the thrill of invention. The second and third time through I can adjust to how the students experienced the assignment, but this comes at a cost when the assignment becomes somewhat calcified or the pathways that the course discussion become a little more worn in.

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People have been talking on Twitter about when professors have an obligation to post the syllabus. My only thought is that the syllabus will go up when it is ready and the course website is minimally ready for use, usually a day or two before the semester starts. I’m happy to answer questions even when the syllabus is in the design phase, but there are a myriad of reasons why it is good to take right up until the last minute making changes even if the basic structure has been set for weeks.

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Most of my courses are what my university calls “Writing Enhanced,” which means that they fulfill the standards of that program—emphasis on product, cognition, and process. Nearly twenty years ago when I was an undergraduate student, a writing-enhanced course required a certain number of pages, some of which had to be revised, but my guidance here is more flexible. I have another course design post (yes, I know that this is turning into a teaching-heavy blog) in mind for the near future that engages with the models we use when designing new courses, but, every semester, I have a momentary pang of concern that I’m not having my students write enough. For instance, I have never assigned a long 15–20+ page final paper. Instead, my students write multiple shorter papers (5–7 page) that they revise to a high standard, with the thinking that learning to polish a concise argument in a short paper is a prerequisite for writing a good longer paper when taking research classes. Besides, even without a long research paper to conclude the semester, my students write a lot. By my rough tally, I find that many of my students write nearly twice as much as I did for any class I took as an undergraduate student. Which then sends a flare of concern in the other direction: how much writing is too much?

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I wrote about Chat-GPT last semester and stand by everything I wrote there. But the new semester has brought out another round of hand-wringing and panic about how this tool means for higher education. This semester I’ll be leaning into AI writing in some classes with an “AI-essay critique” exercise and otherwise just incorporating it into the conversations we have when we talk about writing. But as the topic du jour, I’m bored by the conversation now. Moral panics turn tedious in a hurry.