Sunday, November 24, 2019

Thoughts on Renaming Courses

In response to Fretful Porpentine's question about the possibility of renaming some courses.

We've got a fairly flexible lit curriculum; for majors and minors, we have say, coverage areas, including four geography/time based (early/late British/American), and some identity based (Women's, American Ethnic, World/Post-Colonial), and theory/film.  We have these courses at both upper and lower levels, with the lower level courses serving a lot of General Education students.  We also have genre-based courses at the lower level serving mostly Creative Writing and General Education students.

For the most part, the current naming gives the department and faculty lots of flexibility.  We've hired so that each coverage area has at least one person, and some more.  In a given semester, the Asian American lit specialist may teach a lower level course in American Ethnic lit and a senior seminar in American Ethnic lit; they may choose, say, Hmong American lit for the lower level course, and Asian American Autobiography for the senior seminar.  Meanwhile, the specialist in African American lit may teach an upper level American Ethnic course in the Blues and an intro to lit.  And the person who does Latinx lit may have a lower division poetry course and a reassignment.  (We also have two American Indian lit courses taught pretty much every semester at different levels, in conjunction with the American Indian Studies program, and named specifically American Indian Lit rather than American Ethnic because they're cross-listed.)

Because the courses are only formally named "American Ethnic Lit," each person can follow their interests and specialization.  We can be sure each course will be taught at least once a year, and students who decide they love Area A or Professor X can probably take a course at a different level in Area A or with Professor X if they choose.

The drawback is that when, say, an African American student looks at the catalog, they don't see any courses specifically labeled "African American Lit" that might give them a sense that they feel welcome in our department and major.  So maybe they look at history, which labels courses "African American history" and think they're more welcome there.  Or they look at another of the regional public universities around and feel more welcome in the English Department there.

Would having courses labeled specifically "African American Lit" work to make African American students feel more welcome?  I don't know.  And I'm not sure I know how to find out.

Then there's the offerings.  Given course reassignments, sabbaticals, and so forth, can we be confident that we'll be able to offer a senior seminar in Asian American Lit at least every other year?

It would probably work in the American Ethnic areas, as it does in Women's lit.  But in the theory area, it gets more complicated.  We have one lower level theory course required of all majors and minors.  And then we have an upper level theory and a senior seminar in theory.  And various people teach those, often in conjunction with film courses.  We could, conceivably, offer an upper level/senior seminar in critical race theory, queer theory, post-colonial/transnational theory, or some other fairly specialized theory.  But we couldn't be sure we could offer any one of those every other year without tying down one faculty member to teach it.  And that would mean that faculty member wasn't teaching some other upper level course.  We teach one senior seminar, and one upper level theory each year, so we couldn't name, say, a critical race theory course at both the senior and upper level.  And that would limit the faculty member to that one level; currently, that faculty member might decide to try out a critical race theory course at the senior seminar level, and then decide to try it at the upper level in a different year.  Or they might not get assigned an other upper level theory course for several years.

I guess my questions are about whether students really would feel more welcome if they saw their identities reflected more closely in course names?  And could we actually staff those courses at appropriate levels?

1 comment:

  1. Sorry, coming to this late -- I appreciate your detailed response to my query! The course-renaming discussion is playing out in completely different ways in my department; mostly, we have fairly specific, traditional titles, and the new chair wants them to be both vaguer and sexier (like, say, "Revolution, Dreams, and Monsters" instead of "Early Nineteenth-Century English Literature").