Teaching

Rusty Bittermann - Structuring the Course, Part 1

Published on: 27 May 2019

Structuring the Course, Part 1

Thanks to my History Department colleagues and the academic vice-president, I was able to offer thematic World History courses that were capped at around three dozen students. While not ideal numbers for a seminar-style course, they were close enough in size that I could organize my courses as large seminars. The World History courses that I taught neither tracked my graduate fields nor built on the files of lectures and course materials I had accumulated over years of teaching courses within a national history framework. It was liberating to begin anew, to decide what I wanted to achieve with my teaching, and then choose the course structure and content accordingly.
 
My thematic World History courses were similar in structural detail. In the hope that my thinking on them might be of some use to others, I will note how I approached some key issues in this week’s and next week’s posts.
 
Syllabus
 
My syllabus always began with a short list of learning objectives. I did this for myself as much as for my students; it is good to be reminded from time to time of what you are trying to accomplish.
 
My syllabus was also structured so that it communicated a way to see the big patterns in the material that we would be reading and discussing in class. I did this with the titles of each class (which reflected the content of a set of readings) and with the titles that I chose for each section of the course. These titles were not simply descriptive; they articulated the historical conceptualization that informed the course framing, organization and themes.
 
Readings
 
I tried to find readings that offered useful theoretical and framing insights for the entire course. I positioned these as close to the front of the course as possible, preferably for the first class.
 
As I selected readings for my courses, I sought works that were engaging, not too long, and, preferably, written by leading scholars in the field. I also worked hard to find works that cumulatively built on one another and, if possible, worked with other media such as music and film that I could use in the course. I wanted students to be able to occupy familiar terrain as they moved forward in their learning. The choice of readings was key to this.
 
Helping Students Develop Synthetic Knowledge
 
On the first day of class, I gave students a list of three or four big questions, and told them that one of these questions would be on the final exam. I invited the students to think about my class as a term-long collective endeavour to develop good answers to these big questions.
 
I also provided students with reading questions for the entire term’s reading and class discussions. There were usually half a dozen to a dozen questions per class. As I crafted these questions, I bore in mind the course objectives and the big questions that would be posed at the final exam. I also made sure that my questions engaged the theoretical and framing issues I had introduced to explore the ever-broadening connections among the readings, films, and music.
 
Many of my reading questions focused on cumulative learning. Providing all the reading questions on the first day of class gave students the opportunity to budget their time appropriately. But developing the reading questions as a total course package was useful for me, too, as it helped me do a better job of providing coherence in my courses.

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