ATT1: The Collaborative Syllabus

My first tidbit is actually based on something I borrowed from Quick Hits. In fact, if I remember correctly, it was described by Scott Sernau, who was one of my teaching mentors at IUSB. But I adapted it to my needs.
Simply put, I let students select topics to be covered during the semester. And I find it advantageous in some contexts.
The way I do it is quite simple. During the first week of class, I distribute a list of topics and each student has to select a limited number of them. Topics with the largest numbers of votes are added to syllabus and the coursepack is built based on this selection.

I reserve the right to merge topics. So, two topics which seemed relatively unpopular may form parts of a broader topic which can reach more students. I put topics in a sequence after they’ve been selected, to avoid some bias effects on the section process. And I typically have predetermined topics for the first few weeks of class, both as a way to make sure everyone is on the same page, especoly about basic concepts, and because it gives me more time to prepare the readings for the rest of the semester.

Some things make this technique more practical. For instance, it works well in a small seminar but it’d be very hard to do in a large textbook-based class. Where I first used it (IUSB), it was possible to build the coursepack through the semester. In fact, the electronic reserve system even allowed me to bypass the coursepack format altogether. At another place where I’ve used it (Tufts), coursepacks took enough time to build that it could only be done for a later section in the semester. I had to start with prepared material before the semester started. In other cases, including Concordia, the coursepack system is such that it’d be very impractical to use this technique unless it’s possible to meet students weeks before the course starts.
I’ve noticed a number of advantages with this technique. One is that it pushes students to engage in those broad issues of course design which give them insight into the course as a whole. Not only does it mean that students are a bit less passive, but they get a behind-the-scenes look at what teaching involves and may understand diverse things about the way topics relate to one another.
A related advantage is that students can claim ownership for a dimension of the class. Even without discussing the effects of the selection process very specifically (it’s not my thing to say “you chose the topics, don’t blame me if you don’t like them”), there’s a clear sense that te course as a whole becomes a shared responsibility.
In fact, I’ve associated this with te typical seminar structure of having individual students “responsible for” individual topics. Though everyone has to understand all the topics, each student becomes more of an expert in a given topic, often doing a presentation about it. I should elaborate on this as a separate tidbit, but it’s a common format for seminars, in some contexts. The way it works with the collaborative syllabus is that people can choose, at the same time, a series of topics they want covered and a specific topic on which they want to work. I usually try to get the student’s expertise on that topic to carry through the semester, but that part hasn’t been too effective.

Yet another thing I’ve noticed with the collaborative syllabus is that the way I explain a topic may have a large role effect on how students select them. For instance, the first time I tried this method, in a seminar about linguistic anthropology, I had semiotics as a topic. When I explained it, I mentioned zoosemiotics and associated animal language with that topic. That semester, semiotics ended up being the most popular topic in the initial vote, something which I wouldn’t have expected, had I designed the syllabus by myself, without student input.

New Feature: Alex’s Teaching Tidbits

When I created this blog, I mostly thought about using it to host a podcast but I still wanted to use it as a place where I could blog about topics related to ethnography. Originally, I called it “Headnotes: The Informal Ethnographer Blog” (HIEB) and some remnants of this old name can be found in some places. Because the method I use to distribute podcast episodes assigns the blog’s title to the podcast, I decided to change this blog’s official title to reflect the name I had decided to give my podcast. “Rapport: The Informal Ethnographer Podcast” (RIEP).
I’ll still use this blog mainly for my ethnography podcast. I’m not really getting any significant feedback about that podcast, but I don’t have any reason to stop doing it. So I’ll maintain that.

But I’ve also been meaning to blog about other things. I could post things on my main blog, but what I have in mind is more structured and that personal blog is anything but structured.

What’s funny, is that what I’m thinking about isn’t that directly related to ethnography. At least, it’s not specific to ethnography.

Basically, I want to share some ideas I have about teaching. More specifically, I want to share little bits and pieces of things I found useful in my teaching experience. Not that I consider myself a better teacher than somebody else or that I have something very unique to share. But talking about teaching is a useful way to think about what it may imply and to enhance our teaching methods. In order to, hopefully, enhance people’s learning.

I don’t really want to do meta-teaching, here: I’m not teaching teachers. My father used to do it and I have some ideas about how that’s done, but it’s not my purpose, here. So this isn’t about telling others what to do or to boast about successes. In fact, while some of the “tidbits” I have in mind may sound like pieces of advice or indications about effective strategies, I mean this feature to be about short reflections on teaching, including challenges faced or failed attempts at using a given strategy.
In fact, I tend to be wary of “tips and tricks,” especially when it comes to teaching. We all have different approaches and what may seem like the best advice to give one person might actually disrupt somebody else’s approach. What works for me may not work for you. Furthermore, what didn’t work for me may in fact be quite appropriate in your case. Either because I wasn’t effective at implementing it or because it’s not appropriate in my context.

My hope is that my tidbits will be a source of inspiration for certain people. Simply put, I just want to share. Much of blogging (and social media in general) is really about sharing thoughts and ideas. In this case, the thoughts and ideas shared will be about teaching.

Part of the inspiration for this new feature is the Quick Hits series from Indiana University‘s Faculty Colloquium on Excellence in Teaching (FACET). I don’t presume to be able to imitate the Quick Hits or produce something similar in any way, but this blog feature is my homage to that series and to FACET, which produces it.

In a sense, it’s my way of giving back to the community.

Back in 2004-2005, I received a Future Faculty Teaching Fellowship (FFTF) to teach in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Indiana University South Bend (IUSB). One important benefit of this program is that it was an opportunity to fully immerse myself in teaching. I had already taught at different institutions, but this was a time to really focus on teaching. Some resources were provided through the FFTF program while others were available at large. In the latter case, I’m mostly thinking about teaching workshops and I attended ad many as I could, during that time. I still do the same, in fact, and I’ve given a few myself. As for FFTF-specific resources, two very valuable things remain on my mind. One is a mentor at the department where I was teaching. I was lucky enough to get two inspiring teachers splitting this task between the two semesters: Becky Torstrick (who was just coming back from a year abroad on a Fullbright covering both research and teaching) and Scott Sernau (who was then chair of the department).
The FFTF also offered a chance to work as a group of fellows across diverse campuses Before the start of the academic year, we were invited to spend a weekend at something close to a retreat during which we all participated in customized sessions on a variety of topics ranging from teaching portfolios to “non-traditional students” (those who are older than the typical age range for undergraduates). It’s during that retreat that we were given copies of one of the Quick Hits books.
The FFTF also brought us together at mid-year, for a series of discussions about our experiences up to that point and as a way to welcome new fellows. That event mostly inspred me to think about a sense of continuity between teachers. Like successive cohorts of students, we were gaining from peers who came before us and had a chance to help those who would come after us. From pithy advice to exam questions, we could reciprocate.

My FFTF year wasn’t my first year of teaching but it was the start of something special in my teaching career.
And it was mostly about getting inspired, not about being told what to do.

What does this have to do with ethnography? Well, again, not much. I did talk about “Teaching Ethnography” in one episode and I do frequently mention teaching as I talk about what I do as an ethnographer. After all, though I’m getting contracts as a “freelance ethnographer” and I do take on other projects using my ethnographic background, my main job as an ethnographer is still that of a teacher in a variety of ethnographic disciplines. Since I’m now using the “Informal Ethnographer” (and “iethnographer”) identity to regroup my work activities, it all makes sense, in my mind.
Besides, my approach to teaching is itself ethnographic. Not just because I do participant-observation in teaching contexts but also because my perspective uses the same considerations as ethnographic research.
There are some things which are specific to ethnographic teaching, in the tidbits I have in mind. But I really want to discuss teaching in general, whether or not it’s applicable as a reflection (or strategy) to disciplines outside of ethnography.
How do I dare do this? Well, it’s my blog and I feel free to use it the way I want to use it.
Those posts won’t be labeled “ethnography” unless they directly relate to ethnography. They’ll all have “ATT” in heir titles, to designate them as part of “Alex’s Teaching Tidbits.” they’ll also be categorized as “Alex’s Teaching Tidbits” using this blog’s simple post taxonomy. So they should be easy to spot and skip.
I don’t have a specific plan in terms of schedule but I do have a fairly long list of potential topics, already. Not sure I’ll cover them all but it’s easy to get started.

So I’ll start.