One of the hardest things to explain to non-teachers is what’s involved in creating a new class. Non-teachers may only ever have seen teaching from the student side: lectures, activities and assignments that seem to appear magically, like an elaborate pancake breakfast prepared by Supermom on Sunday morning. Or, they may only recall the deflated professors who lectured from brittle yellow notepads and think that college teaching involves nothing more than cranking on the same rusty water spigot year after year. Given that some professors themselves underinvest in teaching, together with the popular societal view that professors’ jobs are easy, the stage is set to minimize the meaningfulness of our teaching preparation work.
This summer as I radically retool two upcoming Fall courses (one online and one face-to-face), I’m fully immersed in course prep and more aware than ever of its charms and challenges. Certainly, part of why I am so earnest and curious about course creation — from inception to design to implementation to assessment — is my recent rediscovery of online teaching. It has, in fact, pushed me to rethink the looser style of my face-to-face classes, just as my foray into backpacking — with its need for meticulous planning and minimalism — has affected how I regard and organize stuff in my home.
Given the exigencies of creating new classes or overhauling old ones, it surprises me a little that I find it so invigorating. But I notice right away that, because I’ve decided on a radical overhaul, I’m back in a student role, in this case a sort of intense, self-curated LGBT Studies summer camp. The exhilaration of reconnecting with the traditional course subject matter, while diving into the latest developments, is intrinsically pleasurable and will also be a catalyst for infectiously enthusiastic teaching. I’m actually eager to share this with students! Teachers who are unable to fall newly in love with the subject they teach, as I have often been, are surely cheated out of one of the deepest pleasures our jobs have to offer.
Next, I discover that, for me, there is also satisfaction in the almost tactile process of laying out and executing such a complex creative project, from mere idea to concrete realization. The satisfaction of making my ideas come to life by expressing an abstract learning goal through various sorts of well-placed assignments and assessments, is perhaps like crafting a dress or a house. And maybe because I’m independent and intellectually-oriented, there’s something especially gratifying about the rare prospect of helping ideas live and breathe in shared, intersubjective space. That I think of creating a class as a sort of craft, then, is meant to express that, through this activity, I sometimes feel my most abstract ideas sprout legs, don shoes and take off running through the tangible world.
I think the comparison with crafts may be especially apt. On the one hand, part of why the richness and burdens of this creative work are often overlooked by professors is that intellectuals tend not to prize merely technical, practical or instrumental proficiency as we do intellectual insight. Secretly, perhaps, we may envy the skill of the plumber or electrician, even as we not-so-secretly believe we move in higher, more ethereal realms. Course design experts, I am told, often feel devalued by old school profs who are suspicious of what they see as window dressing and gimmicks. After all, for many college profs, including me, learning to teach meant nothing more than learning our discipline. In fact, we implicitly distinguished ourselves from K-12 teachers partly and precisely because we never focused on teaching in that way.
In addition to the elitist elements at play here, I wonder if it’s not also about sexism. When the quintessential educational course creator comes to my mind, it’s the female elementary school teacher. Earnest and bright eyed, she spends her own money and weekends at the crafts store, buying felt strips and foil stars. While most people can talk a good game about how important her work is — forming the next generation and whatnot — by and large, she is regarded as a glorified babysitter. This image stands in deliberately sharp contrast to the (serious, muscular, hard-hitting, deep) university professor. As I prepare for the new Fall semester, then, I wonder if professors’ (understandable) need to affirm our own specialness and status might not keep us from truly enjoying course preparation. As for me, I am discovering that, as I play with the glitter and glue sticks, as well as the big ideas, they are not really so different after all.