Thursday, December 30, 2010

I Thought We Covered That?

I'm doing some curricular work over break. It's leftover from the semester, from a committee I'm on. The idea is that my department thinks two of our courses should give different culture credit towards a university requirement. Now, most of our students have no problem getting their foreign culture credit (though introductory foreign language classes don't carry these credits, which seems totally stupid to me!). But some do.

Anyway, we have four courses:
a 100 level intro to lit from different cultures
a 200 survey of lit from different cultures
a 300 topics in lit from different cultures
and a 400 seminar in lit from different cultures

(except the names are slightly different)

Two of these courses already carry the credit designation. Two don't. Why not? No one seems to know, but in our department, we agree that it makes sense that the others should, too.

Last semester, I filled out some paperwork to get that to happen. And the deanling in charge of passing the paperwork before it goes to the college committee (which I'm on, too, alas) said, no, that's not enough.

Part of the problem is that we don't title our courses: Literature of the Indian sub-continent in the 20th century. Sometimes the course looks like that, but we use umbrella designations so that different colleagues can teach some of them. These courses, for example, can be taught by one of three people in our department, each of whom focuses primarily on a very different geographic area. That makes a lot of sense in our field. It doesn't make sense to folks over in the fort much, though. And doesn't fit easily with some of the stuff they come up with, stuff that often assumes the same person will teach the same course every semester or every year from hiring to retirement.

I came up with the brilliant idea of asking to see the paperwork from one of the courses that does carry the designation, so that I can see how this one should be filled out. And yes, what I put is almost exactly the same. So I chatted with the deanling a bit.

And the dean gave me this bit: "[A different culture] course addresses most, but not necessarily all, of the following aspects of one or more foreign countries or regions: cultural, social, linguistic, historical, political, religious, intellectual, philosophical."

Seriously, how many anthropology courses do you think cover all of those, and those are pretty much the epitome of a course on different cultures, right? How about the art history courses? Think they talk a lot about linguistic and political stuff?

But the dean insists that we have to guarantee that the course "covers" most of those aspects of one or more foreign cultures, and it has to do it for the recent past. (Apparently the pre-columbian arts of the Americas course fits somehow? So does World History to 1500?)

I think this is one of those changing goal post things. The deanling has in mind that certain things pertaining to his/her field make the most sense, but isn't going back to change stuff that made it in under the previous deanling. (Yet?)

The deanling insists that "coverage" is key.

Wait, yes, that's right, "coverage."

Back when I was just starting to train in a program that provided MA students with a certificate in composition teaching, we talked a bit about "coverage." In that program, at least, "coverage" was not seen in positive terms. The problem with coverage, I was taught, is that it's not enough to say you've "covered" something in class unless you're actually taking time to teach it. Instead, you need to focus in on what you want students to learn, and teach it; that means focusing on depth more than breadth for most things.

For example, one can cover 30+ Shakespeare texts in a semester. You simply lecture on them and have students read mostly excerpts (or pretend to yourself that they're reading all 30 texts). And students will have "covered" all 30 texts. Or, you can teach 8-12 texts and have students get something deeper and fuller out of them. They won't be able to say a single sentence, in all likelihood, about Troilus and Cressida, but they'll probably be able to say a couple paragraphs about one of the texts they've actually read.

Of course, as with most educational ideas, coverage becomes pretty silly when taken to extremes, but there's a point at which having students read broadly is really helpful, and there's a point at which studying a single text for a while is deeply rewarding.

The idea of "coverage" is more complicated in fields where one bit of knowledge or skill builds on another. You can't skip fractions and expect to understand algebra or calculus. Of course, you can't just "cover" fractions, either. Students have to understand them fairly well in order to succeed at the other math subjects.

My point is, though, that (in my experience) teachers of my generation rarely use "coverage" without a fair bit of verbal dancing. Thus, I was taken a bit aback when the deanling tossed it off so easily and uncomplicatedly. Just make sure that you cover "most, but not necessarily all, of the following aspects of one or more foreign countries or regions: cultural, social, linguistic, historical, political, religious, intellectual, philosophical." And that the course is contemporary.

I can do that, of course. And a course in literature will, so some level, address most of these issues, depending on the text, more or less explicitly. (Students might not realize they're getting philosophy reading Shakespeare, or might think that when we discuss masculinities we're discussing politics, but we are!)

Does anyone else feel like all those things above run together more or less? Isn't political stuff also historical, intellectual, and philosophical? And aren't social and cultural stuffs also religious and linguistic?


  1. Anonymous12:42 PM

    If I didn't know better, I'd think that we worked at the same place. I went through all of this nonsense (and continue to deal with it) when we revamped our general education program. For whatever reason, people outside the humanities *do not get* how courses work in our field. Even if you explain it a lot of times.

    The thing I ended up doing was just taking what we already had and making sure I pointed out all of the things that fit into the outside-the-department model for designing a course, basically packaging our stuff for that audience. It's a ton of work, and it's pointless, mindless, unnecessary work. But apparently that's how things get done :/

  2. From what field does your deanling come? I'm trying to think of a discipline in which hir nonsense makes sense, and I'm failing. (Do hard sciences approach coverage that way? Surely mechanical engineers need to learn stuff in depth as well as breadth!) It's the sort of airily daffy standard that inspires snide remarks about how admins have no idea how college courses actually work. And, from reading blogs, I now know that this is a pernicious stereotype of admins. (Right?) So what gives? In what world does that kind of broad coverage make sense for anyone? (Even Pseudology can't stretch itself that far without fudging the requirements a bit!)

  3. Anonymous5:16 AM

    Koshary - My sense is that the world in which that sort of broad coverage makes sense is the world of accreditation and assessment. It's all about demonstrating student learning outcomes, which are defined in really broad ways, which means that for some, "depth" can look like "failure to meet the required SLOs."

    The point isn't really to meet each of those areas in a deep way. It's to somehow spin what you already do to fit into those boxes and then to collect data about how what you do fits into those boxes so that you can prove to people (accrediting bodies, legislators, upper admin, tax-payers) that you do what you already do.