Saturday, January 15, 2011

New Course Preps

Like my bloggy friend, Dr. Crazy, I am returning from sabbatical this semester and teaching a new course prep. Yes, this means part of my sacred sabbatical was spent prepping the new course. (And unlike Crazy's teaching-oriented institution, my R1 will not be impressed by the time I spent on teaching.) And yes, I will bitch about new course preps like anyone else, especially when I have research and writing that is waiting to be done. But honestly? I believe that new course preps are a blessing dressed as a curse.

The curse is more obvious: new course preps take a LOT of time, especially if they are done right. If the course is required for majors, I have to be sure that the readings and assignments address the approved learning objectives. In some schools, it requires even more, including negotiation with other faculty who teach the same course to agree on common textbooks, assignments, speakers, and/or field trips. I have taught courses with a lot of autonomy and others where we negotiate everything, and since I often get my way, I am fine either way. (BTW: That is tongue-in-cheek sarcasm, with more than a bit of truth.)

Regardless of how autonomous an instructor can be, though, a new course prep requires:
  • reviewing multiple textbooks on your topic and selecting the one(s) that best communicate the points you (and the master syllabus) think important
  • finding useful articles that illustrate or support the points you are trying to get across in class
  • selecting videos, webpages, and other supplemental materials that will enhance student learning
  • preparing any course web materials (quizzes, surveys, games, group activities, links, etc)  
  • identifying potential speakers or external activities to make class more interesting
  • designing in-class activities, assignments, and exams (along with grading criteria) that both encourage and assess student learning while taking into account different students' learning styles
  • finishing a new syllabus
  • a glass or two of wine and/or handfuls of chocolate (...maybe that is just me)

All of that takes time. Obviously, all of this work is not totally finished before the class begins. Instructors will likely be securing guest speakers, films, and determining in-class activities up to the last minute.  (That may not be true for online courses that have to be "in the can" before the semester starts.) But even for those of us teaching traditional, face-to-face courses, a lot of the prep work (readings, assignments, etc.) should be done before you greet the class on day one. (Makes it easier to answer those pesky, type-A students' questions about expectations on a paper that won't occur until late in the semester.) As a result, part of your prior semester and/or the winter or summer break will be spent on significant course prep--time you won't be doing research or writing... or traveling, taking a vacation, or simply chilling at home with fiction on the Kindle.

So, where is the blessing in the new course prep, you ask? After all, you argue persuasively, isn't it better to just refine all the hard work you did prepping the courses you have already taught a few times, leaving you more time for the all-important research and writing?? You could become an expert in specific courses, and you would never have to do another new prep again!

Well, here is where I have found the blessing this semester, as I prepare for a brand new course (my ninth in six-and-a-half years):
  • New preps give me a chance to be creative. I get to try new approaches to teaching, new books, new activities, and to incorporate new ideas.
  • New preps give me more insight into the discipline. I review syllabi from other programs, examining what they see as important and how they approach the central arguments in the field.
  • New preps allow me to focus on a formerly untapped aspect of my own knowledge. This is especially true this semester, because I am teaching a course I have never taught before, but it is on a topic where I do a good deal of research and writing. I then get to bring this knowledge into the classroom, while the discussions and readings from class get me excited about my own research and writing.
  • New preps keep me from being bored (and boring) in class. I had that teacher once who taught from what I was sure were 15 year old class notes, handwritten on yellowing notepaper. It was sad and ridiculous. His information was out-of-date, and he was surly when challenged by his students. The poor man needed a change... badly.
New course preps are both curse and blessing, but for me, the blessing is winning out. Classes start soon, and I am excited to go back after sabbatical. I am not sure I would feel that way if I was just recycling old courses. So, new class, here I come!


undine said...

Great post! This is exactly why I like to teach a new course; thanks for putting it so clearly.

cetatean said...

i hate school !!!