openness · reflection · student engagement · teaching

Designing good courses

Coincidentally, I’m picking up Aimée’s baton, and thinking about how to design a good course. I have more questions than answers. Like, how do you design a good university/college course? What you do when you start thinking about what should fill the syllabus, the lectures, the seminar discussions, the assignments? Do you think in terms of learning goals? Do you have a narrative? What makes it a “good” course in your mind? Your excitement for it? Putting your own research interests in it?

Oh, yes, and I have yet more questions, but I think I have made my point. In fact, these questions have been on my mind as I have been navigating the job market and investigating the department offerings. I go on the website, check out their courses, and dream about which of them I’d like to teach. And then how I’d like to teach them. It’s a fiction, just like any other document/exercise in applying for jobs, and it adds to that emotional investment applications demand. But it’s a very exciting fiction: putting myself in those classrooms, interacting with those imaginary students, talking with them about texts that interest us all (one is allowed to take the dream wherever one wants, no?). What texts would I put on the syllabus and why? What’s is the connection between them? What’s the single most important idea or skill or connection or digression I’d like the students to leave the course with? What kinds of conversations would I like the students to engage in? What would I like to hear from them? Yes, I know, I’m killing you with the questions here.

I have been teaching first-year English for a few years; long enough to know what works and what doesn’t, to build in that flexibility that allows for alterations after the course has started, so I can tailor it better to the group. This term, however, is the first time I’m teaching a 200-level course. I am relishing the opportunity. I spent a *lot* of time thinking about the texts, the assignments, the day-to-day, or rather class-to-class content. Basically, I’ve been trying to find answers to the questions I asked you earlier.

The good news is that the class is amazing, mostly because of the students, who are interested, engaged, smart, and very generous in their contributions, their interpretations, their connections, their digressions, and their interactions. Everybody I had talked to told me it would be so in a 200-level course: no longer the overwhelmed or lost first-year, not yet the jaded fourth-year, these students are enthusiastic in my friends’ experiences as well (although I do have quite a few fourth-year students, and they are just as generous). However, even if this class ends up as a resounding success, I am still unsure I’ll know the secret and how to replicate it.

And that’s why I’m turning to you, dear readers. What do *you* do when you design a course? What do you look for when you take a course? I loved it when Jessica mentioned she liked those instructors who came undone just a little bit, but I’m not sure one can build it in as a strategy. So, how do you repeat success and weed out fiascos?

One thought on “Designing good courses

  1. I completely relate. With every new teaching appointment I am inspired to design a great course, unsure how to fully achieve this, and in the end frustrated that the time allotted for my precarious labouring does not allow for a full realization of my initial course “vision.” I have convinced myself that when I have a regular full-time job and the opportunity to teach the same courses multiple times, that I will then manage to work all the kinks out and do a great job. I am sure this is just fantasy. So far, the only thing I've really worked out is a patchy system of trial and error.


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