Are “strange” courses best?

Via Tomorrow’s Professor I find this list of the top 25 strangest university courses. First, an observation: few of these strike me as all that strange. Perhaps it is because I am in a field–communication–that is often associated with courses about popular culture that might otherwise be considered trivial (courses in soap opera and games shows, for example), I don’t have the hangup about a course sounding serious. When I taught Cyberporn & Society, some people said students wouldn’t sign up because they wouldn’t want that course title on their transcript. I got a number of other suggestions that would raise fewer red flags, so to speak; things like “Historical and Technological Effects of Erotica,” which, once appropriately truncated, would save embarrassment. Of course, I would find it embarrassing to avoid naming a course what it is about.

But it’s more than that. Why, as professors, should we not want to “sell” our courses. If you were a student would you rather take a course–to take an example from that list–entitled “Introduction to Material Culture” or would you be more likely to sign up for “Sex, Rugs, Salt & Coal.” I know which I would pick. And yes, it’s because I’ll expect the latter to be more entertaining, more fun. Is there something wrong with that expectation?

My greatest teaching weakness (among many, I assure you–soon I will share my most recent student reviews with you), is that I can’t stand (a) teaching from a text and (b) recycling courses. The idea of planning a course and then teaching it several times did not, until recently, appeal to me. Now I am getting into re-usable objects for teaching, and particularly online, that makes a lot of sense. But I am very much a fan of the one-off course, a course that organizes the material in an idiosyncratic way to appeal to an audience of students. I’m also a fan of extreme user-driven courses. Although I had an agenda for our “Communication, Media, and Society” course this semester, in past semesters, I’ve gone in and we’ve assembled the syllabus on the first day of class, according to what the students wanted. I expect I will do something similar when I teach it in the fall.

Traditional curricula tend to mess with this. We have a core set of courses we have to teach, and significant changes to that core actually have to go through a state board (even though we are a private university–go figure). My Cyberporn & Society course was a bit of a Trojan Horse. It took a salacious topic and used it to talk about some pretty core issues in communication research. Sure, it was about cyberporn, but it also provided a back door to talking about the effects of media (Does pornography cause rape? What do we mean when we say “cause”? How can we measure social effects?), the role of regulation (Why do we have a First Amendment? Should free speech cover non-political speech, and why? What are the limits on how communication law can be structured and enforced?), and the relationship of technology to society (What role did the sale of pornography play in the diffusion of VCRs? Did increased router sales lead to the wider distribution and acceptance of pornography, or was the relationship the other way around?). Sure, that’s a little “sneaky,” but it is also the way good classes work. I still remember the lessons of professors who bothered to make their material interesting. Unfortunately, this leads to a bit of a gap between what the catalog copy says, and what you do (or can do) in a course.

Vive la special topics course! When I am king, students will be allowed to major in “special topics,” and choose from only the interesting courses on a campus.

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