I’m pushing out some memos based on notes from a few years back, to get myself in the space of thinking about these things on a daily basis again. The musings that follow come from conversations with colleagues about teaching and course/workshop design.

The question, for me, is: How do we embody/transmit cultures of curricular culture change/catalysis/collaboration? In other words, I’m talking about cultures that have a strong value on being changeable, as in many FOSS/hacker/maker community cultures but also startups and schools like Olin that value cultural agility. And then: in the context of higher education, how do cultures like that influence cultures that… aren’t like that, in particular where they’re only allowing the use of a “high-content” course as a vehicle?

Imagine someone saying “well, you can change how we teach DC circuits, but they still have to learn ALL THE THINGS about DC circuits” - it’s an information-transmission model of education, and keeping that value is their condition for engaging in curricular culture change at all. Yeah, it doesn’t make sense from a “oh, come on!” perspective of folks who don’t have that obsession with content, but when people are there, they’re there - so we have to start from where they are.

One of the initial challenges we discussed was the tension of three apparently incompatible criteria. We identifeid three criteria that the curriculum design “needed” to fulfill under the constraints we had been given:

  • Technical legibility (to make the course acceptable to the faculty in the target culture, which in my case is within engineering - the resulting course design needed to be recognized as something “technical” that they would value; it could not be a “soft skills” elective, so… no design, communication, etc. courses.)
  • Student co-ownership, or the notion of students as partners in curricular creation. This was an important cultural aspect for us in terms of the influence we wanted to have on others, both because (1) it felt like the right thing to do - I should probably dig deeper into articulating this more - and (2) students have wildly different timescales and constraints than faculty, and can be powerful complementary drivers of change.
  • Fits well into existing instructor/course designer proficiency, because people have limited time to prep or learn new things to teach. We should draw on their existing domains of competence.

I’m not saying these are the three constraints that every project will have - these were the three constraints our particular situation seemed to have. After articulating them, none of us could think of anything that fit all three, but that clarity in and of itself was valuable.

There were plenty of things that had two out of three!

  • The intersection of “legibility” and “proficiency” was full of things that could be done, but weren’t interesting to us! (i.e. quickly slapping together a lecture-based course in a technical domain we already knew)
  • The intersection of “proficiency” and “student co-ownership” contained a lot of really cool courses that already existed and could be adapted pretty easily - design classes that sent students out into the community, had them working with users, and so forth - but they wouldn’t be “technical” enough to satisfy a target culture that was set on engineering content as the measure of learning.

Interestingly enough, “legibility” and “student co-ownership” was a hard circle to fill. When something is “technical” because it has a lot of information that students do not know and are expected to absorb, it’s hard to think about how students might contribute to that course design. After all, this only frames them as empty vessels to be filled.

We talked about how having this model (which quickly became a visual - a Venn Diagram with a circle for each of the three overlapping requirements) would help us probe some of those assumptions. For instance, was “technical legibility” a requirement the target cultures had set, or one that we had come up with because we thought they would set it? What did it actually mean? How did we know where the boundaries of this circle actually were, for which people, and how could we learn more about that?

We framed the challenge as finding something in the middle – notably, not to find something in the middle of the three circles as a fixed framework, but also allowing flexing the framework (changing the labels or boundaries of the three circles) as a permissible act for finding something in the middle.

It did end up working out, by the way. One of the strongest impressions I had when it worked out was how palpable the affective component of these things could be for faculty. Time and again, when curricular design questions like this cleared up, my colleagues were visibly relieved, happy, and suddenly moving forward with tremendous amounts of energy on something that had previously been a slow, anxiety-ridden crawl.

For me, these kinds of things exemplify the tensions in course design (which we explicated here in that Venn diagram), and the winding, emergent improvisational nature of course design. It’s not a linear path - which shouldn’t be surprising, because engineering design of products is also not a linear path, nor is research, nor is writing… most things aren’t! It also reinforced for me the usefulness of what I’m calling “ontological fluidity” in course design and thinking – the creation of frameworks as a way to see how we’re thinking, not as rigid frames to lock into, but as solid handles to grab and flex and morph and play with.

It also made me think about the many different sorts of considerations that come up during course design, and how they become background notes vs foreground tensions. Different faculty members worry about different things, because they have different lists of “things that will be fine or that I can cause to become fine no matter what happens or what I do” vs. “things they feel like they can only handle if they go a certain way.”

For instance, I don’t really worry about the level of background knowledge my students have in a topic I’m confident with, because I know I can meet them wherever they’re at. I do worry a lot about how many students will be in my class, especially if I can’t control the classroom I’m assigned to, because as a Deaf instructor, I’m incredibly sensitive to things like background noise, and it’s hard to understand student questions in a huge room. A different professor might be the other way around; it doesn’t matter to them how many students there are (perhaps because they’re doing lectures and standardized, automated-grading exams and homework assignments), but they don’t want to change their lecture content, so students had better already know prerequisite material!

This also plays into my continued observations on emotion and intrinsic motivation for faculty in course design - especially their feelings and reactions around the idea of “competence” (largely their own). We have a lot at stake, since our professional role is basically to be experts… so feeling safe to learn is, sometimes, really hard.