All of My Faults Are Stress Related

I’m working on re-designing an upper level general education course called “The Control of Nature. Yesterday, I talked about the problems I’ve had in the past. Today, I’m going to start thinking about the context of the course, and what that means for improving it.

One of my commenters yesterday made exactly the same suggestion as the course design tutorial that I’m working through. Yes, I’ve been doing it all backwards, deciding what I want my students to read and discuss and write about before I’ve defined my goals. The first step is recognizing that things aren’t working. The next step is to start from the beginning, and figure out what I’m doing before I try to fix it.

(Below the fold: I’m going to ease into this goal business, and start with thinking about the course context.)

The course design tutorial doesn’t dive right in and ask for goals. It starts with easy-to-answer questions – the kinds of things that create possibilities and limitations for the class. How does the course fit into the college’s curriculum? What options are there for the schedule, and for the classroom? And who are the students? What do they want out of the course, and what useful stuff could they get out of the course even if they didn’t initially expect it? What’s the mix of students (age, gender, race, ethnicity)? Are they working while in school? Do they have high-speed computer access?

My “Control of Nature” course has very different constraints from any other course I teach. It’s upper-level general education, which means that the course has to fulfill some specific goals (a global perspective, multiple disciplines), and the students will be fairly advanced. On the other hand, there are no geology prerequisites for the class, though some of the students will probably decide to take it because they enjoyed an intro geology class. It’s during the first summer session, which means that a semester’s worth of content has to fit into five weeks. Classes will meet for two hours a day, four days a week, in a classroom that has a computer projection system (I think) and those annoying little chairs with writing space attached. (Oh, and the campus computer network has Google Earth installed.)

As for the students – well, they will be juniors and seniors who need to take two of these courses to graduate. Odds are that many of them will be working full-time on top of taking this class. (Some of them won’t get much sleep between class, bar-tending, and kayaking on the Animas River’s spring run-off.) They should reflect the population of students at the college: both traditional and non-traditional, male and female, mostly whites and Native Americans with some Hispanics and a few African-Americans. Many of them will come from the sprawl on Colorado’s Front Range, some will come from reservations in New Mexico and Arizona, some will be ranch kids, some will be from cities or small towns scattered across the US, a few might be international students. In the past, I’ve seen a lot of Business and Exercise Science majors, but the mix might be different during the summer. (Lots of science majors try to take care of their gen ed courses in the summer.) I think most of the upper-level students are used to doing things online, though course management software (moodle, in our case) is fairly new to our campus.

As for what they might find useful: well, they’re going to need to live someplace, and many of them don’t realize what hazards exist. They tend to know about avalanches, but they don’t realize that rivers flood or that the gullies coming out of the mountains carry debris flows every now and then. They’ve heard about Hurricane Katrina, but probably not about Cyclone Nargis. And they might simply enjoy a good story.

So I’ve got limitations, but I’ve also got opportunities. I’m no sociologist, but maybe some of my students will be. My economics background is pretty thin, but I should have some business majors in the class. The students will be juniors and seniors. Maybe I’ll be able to get them to add their disciplinary perspectives to the class.

And I’ve got a compressed schedule, but I’m also meeting with the class for two hours at a time. I might not be able to ask them to read a lot of material between classes, but I’ll be able to take them on a field trip if I want to. I might even be able to send them off to investigate something on the internet for an hour, and bring them back for a discussion. (The classroom has good wi-fi access, too, if the students have laptops.)

Next: ok, so I know my students and the constraints that come from the college’s curriculum. But what do I want the students to get out of the class? And is there any way that I can acheive my goals with the topics I’ve been working with?


  1. #1 Eric
    March 12, 2009

    Have you ever read “The Ecology of Fear” by Mike Davis?


    It’s a good book about natural disasters, and the resultant social and economic problems they engender, centered around LA. I always thought it would make a pretty kickass companion text to McPhee’s “Control of Nature”, especially the chapter “The Case For Letting Malibu Burn”. The problem always seems to be getting undergrads to think about all the ramifications of human-disaster interactions, and I think Davis’ does a nice job of contextualizing the issue.

  2. #2 Lockwood
    March 12, 2009

    Great start! Now, keeping in mind the constraints and opportunities that you’ve outlined quite well, as well as the overall themes embedded in McPhee’s book, where do you want to go with it? You have a multi-disciplinary course, so you want to work on multiple goal forks: Geological, Sociological, Economic, Political, ecological/biological.

    This is the point to brainstorm- throw everything into the mix, without worrying (yet) about the “how” or about practicality. The pruning comes later. So in your craziest daydreams, what would you like students to know and be able to do? What if you had them for a year? If you don’t put everything on the table now, you may be tempted later to say, “oh I really want to get to that topic/issue… I can worm it in here.” If you look at that topic/issue now, and decide to discard it, you avoid the temptation to shoehorn it in later without the proper planning and structure to do it right. On the other hand, if you keep it in the final mix, you can analyze the prerequisite skills and knowledge, and make sure students are ready for it.

    It sounds like most of your students are from Colorado and nearby areas; working on themes that have some familiarity will be a hook for non-specialist students. The essay on the LA Basin is relevant in terms of debris flows; Atchafalaya is relevant in terms of floods and water management. Icelandic volcanoes, not so much. That’s not to say ‘drop the volcanoes,’ but you might consider either pushing that to the end or giving it less time. For me, that is the most exciting of the vignettes, but 5 weeks…

    I would most certainly include a “current events” component in your goals; part of being educated is making self-education an ongoing committment, and paying attention to the world around you. Not a day goes by without numerous human vs. nature confrontations.

    I’m rambling.

  3. #3 Lynn David
    March 12, 2009

    There surely must be a book titled, “The Economics of Natural Disasters.”

    There’s a paper by Yasuhide Okuyama, see the PDF at:

    China thinks the recent Sichuan earthquake actually helped its economy:

    As a geologist, I remember seeking to alleviate any natural disaster or at least not putting oneself in the way of one (usually in order to save lives) but from an economic standpoint, disasters might be good. Might be that a few good disasters, earthquakes in California, earthquakes and vulcanism in Alaska and Washington state, flood in the Mississippi basin, hurricanes along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, tornados in the Midcontinent area, landslides in mountainous areas, etc. might be what could take America out of the recession.

    But then there are things like “The economics of natural disasters: implications and challenges for food security.”

  4. #4 Sarah
    March 13, 2009

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 13, 2009

    Kim, this is fucking great stuff! I hope you will post more on pedagogy. It is remarkable that at our medical school, basic science faculty receive absolutely no training whatsoever in how to lecture or run small-group tutorials. Some of us turn out to be decent teachers, but it is only by pure random chance.

New comments have been disabled.