getting ready

Well, the countdown to the new semester has begun: newly arrived grad students are in the hallways for orientation; I've seen 5 or 6 of my colleagues for the first time in months; the city's construction project on the main avenue into campus has ramped up, which will give us only one lane in each direction next week when thousands of commuter students drive in for class; and when I went to the library I had to zigzag around tons of yellow Danger Do Not Cross tape to get to the circulation desk. No, it's not a terror site -- they've decided to replace some carpet. Everything's kind of chaotic, but also full of promise. New beginnings.

I've been working a lot on putting together my new graduate course. I've got about 3 semesters' worth of possible goals that have to be whittled down to 1 manageable term. But I've been enjoying skimming through a bunch of essays that may make it onto the reading list. Today's big task is to actually start plugging readings and assignments into the calendar for the class: it's in part a methods course, and could be organized in several different ways.

I agreed to put one of my courses into WebCT this year. In the past, I've always just put my syllabi and other course materials (handouts, link lists, etc) up on my university site. Since I'm comfortable with HTML and actually enjoy tweaking my site, that's always seemed sufficient. But the university is really pushing WebCT on us -- I expect that it will be mandatory in a couple of years. This is part of a larger plan to encourage more distance ed & hybrid teaching. But WebCT does make certain kinds of things easy, or easier -- particularly since it's password-protected so that only students enrolled in the course can have access. (And that all gets done at an institutional level--I don't have to worry about handing out passwords.) I can thus post images from my lectures that I'm not comfortable putting on a freely-accessible page for copyright reasons, and craft assignments around those materials.

Yet I'm still going to post my syllabus on my university site, along with other basic info about the course and my other activities. Why? Partly because it's useful for students to see what the course looks like before enrolling. But mostly because at heart I really believe in the open-access philosophy of the web, and specifically in its capacity to transform pedagogy. So many of the common practices in academic departments encourage a kind of secrecy about what we actually do behind the closed doors of our classrooms: once you're not a grad student TA, how often does anyone actually see you teach? I was observed only 2 or 3 times -- twice for my 3rd-year review, and once for my tenure review. Now, my student evals are really strong, and so there was no concern from the department's standpoint about how I was teaching-- but I'm not sure my experience was that unusual.

But beyond observations (which often are, or at least feel, hierarchical and potentially threatening) there are few things that encourage real conversations about teaching at an institutional or department level. Sure, I might talk about teaching with a friend, but I have no idea what the vast majority of my colleagues actually do in their classes. Because we don't have a culture of openness, when pedagogical issues come up in dept discussions about curriculum reform etc, then there tends to be a lot of defensiveness, etc.

So, why post syllabi on the web for anyone to see? Because it's one simple way to begin transforming basic practices. I've learned so much from looking at syllabi posted by colleagues at other institutions -- not just learning which anthology is being used, or which novels get taught most frequently, but also how other people are representing and shaping the field and the discipline in their classes. I hope mine are useful in some similar way to someone else. So, I'll be putting my syllabi up on my site and in WebCT this year. A little extra effort is I think well worth it in principle.