I’ve been blogging about stages in my course & syllabus design process, sparked mainly by the syllabus workshop in last week’s faculty development institute (part 1, part 2 and part 3 cross-posted to the Juvenile Instructor). I went back to a course I had taught in 2009 and which I hope to offer again this coming fall, on American religious pluralism. That is a version of a course that I first taught probably ten years before that, as a graduate student and then in several iterations as an adjunct at Brandeis. So it’s been revised, revisited, rewritten and taught many times; it’s by no means a new course for me. It’s also one that has no trouble being seen (by me, or by others) as an important and timely course offering. The case hardly needs to be made that students benefit from understanding how religion has figured in American history and from gaining a notion of what adherents to various world religions believe. That said, one often has to position, frame, or justify a course to different potential audiences, and this post tackles some of the things to keep in mind when you do.
It’s the kind of course that demands you know your audience. At Brandeis, which has a lot of Jewish students, the course’s take-home message was basically “Christianity is diverse, too,” whereas at Worcester State, with a much lower proportion of students who are religious at all, I was trying to help students adjust what amounts to a knee-jerk reaction to fear and mistrust of people of faith. And teaching a course in the history of American religion would be an entirely different proposition at a place (say, one of the BYUs) where students are predisposed to think that US history spools along as an accessory to a divine master plan.
You’ll be making the case not only to your students, but to at least some level of institutional governance also. When I taught “Religions in America” in 2009, I offered it as a special topics course. But as I wanted to be able to offer it again, I needed to shepherd it through several levels of administrative scrutiny.
The first was to propose it as a new course offering and include it in the annual course catalog. The new course approval form is a simple 2-page deal, which asks for 100-word description, a 20-word catalog description, and a short paragraph of justification and explanation, along with prerequisites and whether it changes the requirements for a major or minor. This gets departmental approval, then it goes to the All-College Committee (ACC), which bounces it to the University Curriculum Committee (UCC) for a vote. Pretty straightforward. It appears in our catalog, as HI 345 under this description: “Considers topics in American religious history and explores religious diversity in the past and contemporary United States. Offered every 3 years.”
The next level, at our university, is to submit it for approval as part of our general education curriculum. This is optional, but it makes sense if I want students outside the history major to take it and have it “count” for something towards graduation requirements. At our university, we have a fairly new Gen Ed curriculum, called the Liberal Arts and Sciences Curriculum (LASC). I will offend no one by saying it is complex and difficult to navigate, both for professors and for students; this is common knowledge on our campus. To count for LASC, a course has to fulfill at least 4 of the 12 overarching goals of the curriculum, plus be approved in 1 or 2 of the 8 content areas, plus it may also count in one of three “across the curriculum” categories for Diversity, Writing, or Quantitative Reasoning, if I choose it to. Since I wanted my course to count for Diversity and Writing, and to be considered in 2 content areas, I needed to complete five separate approval forms which went to five different subcommittees, plus two additional forms of explanation and context for the course. All told, for this one course I populated close to 30 separate paragraph-length fields with information about the class.
The forms are submitted electronically in a giant PDF portfolio file to the UCC, which assigns it a tracking number and sends it to ACC, who sends it back to UCC who sends it down to the subcommittees for consideration. I submitted the course on January 1. It was approved as a new course on March 2, and the last LASC subcomittee approval was done on April 27th, just barely in time to include it in the printing of that fall’s course catalog. That was actually a good year; this year I submitted one of my courses on Labor Day weekend and now it’s January and it hasn’t even been assigned a tracking number yet, which doesn’t bode well for having it included in next fall’s catalog.
Another level, which isn’t yet required but I can sense the way the wind is blowing, is aligning the course’s outcomes with assessment outcomes at other levels of the university. This was actually the real subject of our January faculty institute workshop on syllabus development. The idea behind this is simple and rather elegant: learning outcomes should be able to line up from the course level to the program level to the level of the curriculum and to the university’s core mission and even one level up, to liberal education outcomes (our university has agreed to be part of the AAC&U’s LEAP initiative, which stands for “Liberal Education and America’s Promise” – see here for more info on that). Our administration envisions this as a kind of pyramid, with courses at the base of the triangle. Dropping into ed-speak for a moment: in theory, any of these interlocking student learning outcomes could be assessed by applying a rubric to student artifacts from an aligned outcome on any lower level of the pyramid, as long as the alignment was done correctly.
What this means for me, and potentially for you if you’re at a place that thinks similarly about alignment and assessment, is that—entirely separate from the course approval and governance processes—I also should spend some time thinking about how my course fits within these connected learning outcome layers. I should be asking myself:
Do I have clear and measurable student learning outcomes for my course?
Does my department or program/major have student learning outcomes? (Ours has identified six)
Which of them does my course address, and what level of student competency is expected?
Which of the general education curricular outcomes does my course address?
Which specific content areas does my course deal with, and how does it specifically address them? [Mine is in “Thought, Language and Culture” (TLC) and in the “United States and its Role in the World” (USW) as well as “Diversity Across the Curriculum” (DAC)]
Along which of the LEAP “essential learning outcomes” does my course line up? (These are identified in the charts as “ESLOs”)
Once I’ve banged my head against a desk for a while to figure this all out, a chart makes it all tidy, down to the level of student artifacts within the course:
In theory, then, someone who was interested in assessing LASC #3 (Critical Thinking) could grab a sample of my students’ research papers (anonymized and with the grade removed) and apply a “critical thinking” rubric to them. Or someone interested in the LEAP “Personal and Social Responsibility” dimension could see if my course’s response papers reflect this. Or if we wanted, in our department, to see how students were doing at chronological thinking, some of my exam questions might be helpful.
You might be thinking, WHY??? This is an awful lot of work to put into thinking about just one course. I agree. It takes hours. And when multiplied across all the courses I teach, it seems almost crazy. But fortunately most of this work is done only once for each course, no matter how many times I may teach it. And there are some efficiencies that come with doing this over and over. The first time is awful and complicated but it gets a little easier with practice. The value also becomes a little more evident as I do this repeatedly, because I begin to identify where my teaching sits within the broader learning environment on my campus and what pieces of the curriculum I am responsible for. Added bonus: If I can successfully translate what I do, I am probably better positioned to articulate my value to my institution (department, university) in terms they can understand and reward.