I’ve got a course that (IMO) is broken, and I’m working on fixing it.
I’ve been teaching a course called “The Control of Nature” (after John McPhee’s book) for 16 years, after thinking of the idea on my way home from my first academic job interview. (Yes, that was a bad time to come up with an answer to a question like “what other class could you teach?” No, I didn’t get that job.) I’ve taught it as an intro course for non-majors and as an upper-level interdisciplinary general education class, and I had plans, once, to adapt it for a freshman seminar and for a large-lecture gen ed class. It’s been through two different general education programs here, and is currently listed as “Education for Global Citizenship” – an upper-level gen ed class that’s supposed to get students to think about global issues from multiple disciplinary and cultural perspectives.
In other words, it’s not a science class any more. (After the fold: more about the purpose of the course, and what’s wrong with it.)
I sold it to the gen ed committee as a course about the ways in which humans deal with natural disasters and natural hazards. And that means that I’m out of my comfort zone when I teach it. I’m fine when I’m explaining floods and volcanoes and landslides. But getting students to argue about the effects of various responses? Especially when I want them to think about the economic impact of rebuilding versus moving, or the way people feel about their home? Can’t we just go on a field trip and admire a local debris flow instead?
In the past, I’ve alternated lectures about the geology (such as the differences between volcanoes in Iceland and the Philippines) with discussions about other reading. (McPhee’s The Control of Nature usually, plus other books or articles that relate to recent disasters. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina I had students read parts of Why New Orleans Matters, to think about why people would want to move back, and Field Notes from a Catastrophe, which discusses the Netherlands’ response to rising sea level.) Along the way, students write short response papers to the discussions, and at the end, they write a paper analyzing the response to another hazard (preferably in their hometown) and give a presentation to the class.
So what’s wrong with it? Well, the discussions are just plain dead. If my goal was to get students to understand the differences between volcanic rocks, I could do that. But getting students to talk about why people would spray water on a volcano in Iceland, and whether that’s a reasonable model for any other place? I don’t know where to start.
And then there are the papers. How can I get students to say something other than “you can’t control nature because it’s not natural and nature can’t be controlled”? It’s not that I want students to leave the class with a particular point of view, to support repairing levees or forcing people to leave Chaiten. But I want the students to have good reasons for supporting one policy versus another, and to be able to assess the strengths and weaknesses of other options.
So the class needs help. I’m teaching it during May this year, and I need to order books next week. I’m currently working my way through a course design tutorial developed by the same people who run the Cutting Edge teaching workshops. I could do it alone – the tutorial is designed well for a single person sitting at a desk – but I have a blog. Maybe I can get some of the workshop experience by telling the entire world about it.
This is the first of several blog posts about the process of redesigning a course. Next: figuring out the point of it all. (What should my students get out of the class, besides a credit towards graduation?)