That Rug Really Tied the Room Together: What Ties Your Class Together?

June 15, 2013

I was a young 3rd year Ph.D. student. One of my faculty advisors, who taught graduate courses in the Higher and Postsecondary Education program gave me the incredible opportunity to design and teach a course from scratch on “The College Student in America.” I was humbled, honored, excited, and nervous. Right away, I started researching primary texts, then secondary texts. I reviewed films on higher education, technology, culture and so on. I reached out to colleagues on campus who I knew had incredible stories and/or experiences related to this broad topic of the college student in America. I found so much seemingly pertinent content for the course that it was a bit overwhelming. The sensible next step would have been to look at the over-abundance of material I had gathered and begin to sort things out while eliminating material that did not belong—only so much can be done in a given semester, right? I ignored this crucial step and instead worked on a course schedule that would include everything I found that I believed had relevance and value to the course. The students needed all of this! At least that’s what I thought… I broke the class down into 4 large units, each with it’s own short research paper (that were supposed to build on one another) where students could show me their level of understanding of course content and application of that knowledge in different contexts.

So, what happened? I overloaded them with readings to the point that they were forced to pick and choose what to read, making a shared discussion of readings in class difficult. I showed films that took up large chunks of class time, and when I switched to asking students to view films at home, it ate into time they could spend reading. Guest speakers came to class, shared their insights, stories and experiences, but without much context- context I should have provided. Student papers were good, overall, but tended to be hyper-focused on the unit topic and demonstrated a limited ability to engage across course sub-topics. By the end of the semester, students gave feedback that the content of the course was interesting, relevant, and important to them, but that it was as if I had taken everything for the course and at once, tossed it out of a speeding car on the highway, leaving it to the students to figure out how it all fit together and what it all meant. Basically, the course had no flow, no sense as to why we were reading these texts together, why this topic was addressed before that one, or how all the course topics related to a larger conceptual understanding of the field. I had given these issues thought when designing the course. It made sense to me! My problem, in not articulating the rationale behind my course design decisions to myself clearly, and worse, not articulating them to my students, left them implicit and that opened the course content up to interpretations by students that were justifiably far off from what I intended.

It was too much, too unfocused, too disconnected, and at that time I had no idea what I’d done so wrong to make the class go so poorly. I could cut myself some slack, remind myself that I was a graduate student teaching a graduate course (a uniquely challenging experience- to be discussed in a later post), I was young, lacked experience, and so on. But, that wouldn’t help the next time I needed to teach a class, especially when that same faculty advisor asked me to give it another go the following year teaching that same course on the college student in America. It took some self-reflection, mentoring by amazing colleagues, and a lot of trial and error to figure out why things had gone so wrong, and how to work to not let that happen again.

I do not think it would be too far a stretch to state that we’ve all likely either been a student in, or actually taught a class that was filled with great content (readings, presentations, guest speakers, films, etc.) but at some point (perhaps mid-term, or after the class conclusion) are hit with the realization that while the class covered interesting, relevant content, as a whole it felt a bit scattered, digressed, lacking a clear focus or thread that tied the entirety of the course together into a coherent whole.

This past fall, I met with an instructor who was having trouble revising a course taught a year before. The course did not go very well, and student feedback clued the professor into the fact that students were often lost. They could grasp the content of each class session. They could engage in discussion about the current topic. They could handle the intellectual level and rigor of the materials. However, they could not see how week 1 led to week 2, how topic 1 led to topic 2, and how unit 1 led to unit 2 and so forth. As the professor expressed to me, “I see now that my class has no narrative arc to it.” What’s tying everything together? Why did you decide to put that topic first, that second, and that third? Why did you include this reading and not that one? Why are you asking students to write a comparative essay, a research paper, pass an exam, etc.? Implicitly, all teachers have answers to these questions, at least at some level. But, until those reasons are drawn out into the open, carefully considered, and then articulated to students (or discussed with them and collaboratively built), it becomes too easy for us to be drawn off track in a course, too easy for us to include topics or readings or assignments that simply do not belong, and too easy for the criteria on which we evaluate our students’ learning to be obscured both from them and us. The instructor and I talked about these issues and together drew out implicit thoughts into a clearly articulated course description that focused on a narrative arc and followed that with four simply stated expectations for student learning in the course (i.e., in this course, students will …). The process took no more than 30 minutes. All of a sudden, things fell into place. There were justifiable answers to questions about which book to choose to assign for this unit, and how many papers should be assigned and what questions should be asked, as well as guidance to inform the structure and flow of the course topics. Suddenly, the whole thing made sense! There was this beautiful moment where everything came into alignment, while still allowing room for flexibility and even digression when deemed appropriate as related to the overall course description and expectations for student learning. Now the instructor had a reason to allow or even encourage changes in the course, or digressions during discussion, as well as to remain fixed and keep discussion on topic because the course focus, thread/s, and expectations for student learning were made explicit. If this is what I want students to be able to do as a result of this course, then I need to cover these three topics (not those two), in this order, ask these questions, assign these readings (and not that one, even though it’s my favorite!), have students write these kinds of papers, and talk explicitly with students about why we’re doing all of this in this particular way–revealing the narrative arc to them as something not to be discovered, but read, practiced, and involved in directly.

What I learned in my own teaching, and what I try to share with faculty with whom I work, is this critical, initial part of course design where we make the implicit reasons driving the decisions we make very explicit. Like The Dude’s rug in Big Lebowski, that when stolen left his living room feeling adrift because “that rug really tied the room together,” explicitly stating and talking with students about our rationale for course design ties the class together. For me, it often includes a thorough course description that describes the narrative arc and expectations for student learning that articulate the threads of the class 

I’d like to hear how you, as a teacher, ensure your course is tied together within some kind of narrative arc, justify your course design decisions, and make these explicit to students (and how they ultimately benefit student learning).

I’d also like to hear from students about your experiences navigating through courses, both those with a clear narrative arc and those without. Fellow students could learn from your experiences and use those same strategies, and instructors could benefit from hearing about the kinds of explicit narrative arcs that are most helpful to your learning.