Monday, October 26, 2015

Serendipitous Syllabus Overload, and Having Students Help Build a Course


In practice here at CSUCI Broome Library, we are all teaching librarians. when I schedule information literacy sessions, all librarians are up for grabs for me--my Head of Public Services and Outreach, Head of Unique Collections and Scholarly Communication, my Collections & Technical Services Coordinator, my Electronic Resources Librarian, my Original Cataloging Librarian, even my dean/AVP. Everybody's on deck when there's an instruction need, and with over 120 information literacy sessions scheduled this fall alone, everybody bats, and everybody bats big. In addition to the many information literacy sessions we teach, many of us also teach semester-long classes.

Before I talk about teaching my credit course this semester, some important background. Here at CSUCI, the librarians (who have tenure-track faculty status) regularly teach and co-teach credit courses in disciplines where we're qualified, in addition to classes actually certified under the LIB (Library as home department) heading. We're teaching (or co-teaching in some cases) both lower- and upper-division courses in English, University Studies, Political Science, History, Communication, and Freedom & Justice Studies, among others. It's pretty difficult not to trip over us anywhere in the curriculum. In theory (and sometimes practice), the home departments get us on buyout either through their budget or through a grant, so that the library dean can hire part-time lecturers to fill behind us for things like reference desk time and other duties that are more easily transferred to another person. (Whether librarians are tenure-track, whether they teach, and how that is decided and practiced varies widely, even in my own experience across a handful of state universities.)

Here at Broome Library, we are encouraged to teach within home departments and effectively become embedded information literacy ninjas, integrating information literacy concepts and work into the regular work of the curriculum, especially since information literacy is specifically written into our general education requirements. I'm still new to the politics of the place, but our teaching seems to go over well with all involved. The struggle becomes when the buyout doesn't quite happen, and resources get strained. We can easily backfill reference desk hours, but other duties are not so easily re-assigned. General wisdom is that teaching one class per semester is do-able, and most librarians teach one class every or every-other semester. Occasionally opportunities related to grants and new initiatives come up and someone teaches two classes, but from what I've seen, it's a grueling pace to have to keep. Just the one class has kept me pretty well on my toes this semester.

Sooprize Collaboration: Including Students in Syllabus-Building

This semester I've been teaching FJS 340: Exploring Freedom and Justice, a first-time course for me. It's been going very well -- my initial syllabus scared the students a bit: because we have a 2 hour 50 minute block for class once a week, I treated each block as two classes, and took seriously the idea that for a 3-credit class, at least 9 hours of work was going into it per week. Add to that what *I* figure I can read and digest across 9 hours, and cue panicked undergrads in a gen-ed course faced with what was essentially a graduate-level workload. My initial misstep actually led to a great activity, though, in which I gave my students the opportunity to choose which readings they would focus on each week. From the initial syllabus, we went week by week, and I indicated which two readings were foundational and would be required. After that, I described each of the remaining readings *and why I chose to include them on the syllabus*, and the students, in collaboration with each other, chose two to three more readings from the remaining four to seven that were listed for the week.

It was an eye-opening experience--I approached building my syllabus as seriously and carefully as any architect, building a list of readings from a broad bibliography painstakingly developed, paring it down to what I thought was essential and including some items I hoped students would find uncomfortable, intriguing, or controversial. Since the course is multidisciplinary in nature, I talked with colleagues both in and out of the library for ideas and readings, but I hadn't considered consulting students in the building of my syllabus. It turns out that students really engaged in the exercise, and because they are the ones who have effectively chosen the readings for each week, they've taken real ownership of the material (to the point of calling folks out for being the deciding vote for choosing a particular article, and then being caught out in discussion as the one not reading it).

We also went through the list of assignments and pared those down, though that was mostly removing one large project, rearranging some due dates, and redistributing point values. I discovered that what some may find tedious in terms of syllabus revision, the students found fascinating--the nuts and bolts behind the decision-making of course creation, how point values were determined, why assignments were included and what they were designed to do in terms of asking students to demonstrate mastery. Course-creation became a real conversation and a bit more of a collaboration with students than I've experienced in the past.

The accidental and conversational approach to a too-large syllabus worked so well that I'm actually going to build this in as part of the first day's activities for the next time I teach the course, in Spring 2016. Right now I'm trying to figure out how to structure this in such a way that I might study it and report out, so any ideas welcome.

Engaged Journaling vs. Weekly Critical Reflection Assignments

This exercise, though accidental, synergized nicely with the way assignments were designed. In addition to a large research project scaffolded through the semester (more on that in a moment), in the past I've assigned students to complete a weekly critical reflection on the material they read for class. The intent of the assignment is not to get the students to summarize--I tell them I've already read the material, I assume they're going to do the same--but to have the students think critically about where they see the principles for the week manifested in their own worlds, what that means, and how/whether the week's material changed how they think about something. Inevitably, though, the weekly reflections become summaries. The students begin to detest writing them, I start to detest reading them. I attended a workshop on building community in the classroom with Dr. Jacob Jenkins (Dr. J) of our Communication faculty, and he generously shared with me his work on active/engaged journaling exercises.

Though I did ask students for critical reflections during a few weeks (particularly where I ask them to consider what information is valued in their field, and how it is valued), for most of the other weeks I asked them to engage the material in different ways. During the week where I ask them to consider readings on various "ways of knowing," students were asked to write a poem or song lyric capturing a 'way of knowing' other than academic, with the option of performing their piece in class live or recording it to play to the class via YouTube. During a week where we considered information as a freedom and justice issue within the context of political science and international conflict, students were tasked with selecting an image that felt significant to them after considering that week's readings, and speaking for 1-2 minutes on why they chose that image and how it resonated with their understanding of concepts within the readings.

So far, the assignments have been a success. The biggest success has been generating conversation between students regarding the choices they made, and what concepts are more difficult to grasp than others. The assignments are low stakes in terms of points, but really help to start off each class session with energy (not a small thing for a 12:00-2:50pm class), and the chance to work with concepts in a more personal, engaging way than just academic narrative appears to (1) inform how well students understand the concepts presented, and (2) make students much more open to discussing difficulties they encountered in the material, both in terms of comprehension and in terms of struggling with questions of social justice within particular contexts. This is no mean feat--before we explore information in different disciplines (such as economics and business, health, political science, and others), students have to master theories of freedom and justice. This means the first few weeks are heavy on political theory, which can be tough for students to get through. Low stakes assignments designed to elicit questions and identify challenges early mean that by the time we make it out into the disciplines we want to explore, students are comfortable with identifying the concepts of freedom and justice at work, as well as identifying those not actively considered by parties to various information conflicts.

The assignments also prime students for discussion--students have been eager to share their work and creativity, and the way I organize class is usually around a number of larger discussion questions instead of lecture. Because students have just engaged with sharing their assignment, moving into discussion about the readings (which were the foundation for their assignments) works well in terms of transition. We move from sharing the assignment, to covering concepts and lingering questions, and then into application across cultures and connection across disciplines.

It's not all fun and games; my students are required to work on a research paper throughout the term--more on that in the next post. But so far, both the syllabus-decisions and the engaged journaling exercises (hat-tip to Dr. J!) have been huge successes for my course, and I'm looking forward to seeing how students respond to the next iteration when I intentionally include their feedback. I'm going to be doing a search for some literature on faculty who have involved students this way in syllabus-building, so if you know of any good reads on the subject, please share!

1 comment:

The Research Project: Scaffolding & Exploring Information as a Freedom & Justice Issue | Eve of Instruction said...

[…] due, I tried to scaffold assignments related to the project throughout the semester. Like the active journaling assignments for the course, the smaller assignments were for low-stakes grades, but in totality the pieces of the project add […]