Why I Teach

I’ve been thinking about curriculum a good deal lately, partly because our department has been doing a program review, but also just because I read about and hear about what other colleges and universities are doing.  The university where I teach has a rather regimented curriculum both in terms of the general education requirements and within our major.  We don’t give our students all that much flexibility.

I looked back at one of our catalogs from the mid-1990s, and I see that the curriculum really hasn’t changed all that much.  In fact, what we seem to have done in most cases is simply add more requirements on.  The classes are largely the same, though there have been some minor name changes along the way (Intro. to Chaucer became simply Chaucer, for example).

There are two things that worry me about this march through required classes that students have to do.  First, it can easily lead to stagnation of both the curriculum and the professors.  If we’re teaching the same classes we taught two decades ago, it’s too easy for us to teach them the same way.  We need new classes to help us see how to teach in different ways, as it’s often difficult to completely shake up an existing class we’ve taught semester after semester.  We’re busy people, so we might just take the time to tweak them, changing an assignment here or there, maybe adding a new reading to show we’re keeping up, but that’s probably it.

Also, I would like to think that the world has changed over the past two decades, so our classes should change, too.  Colleges and universities that only require a handful of classes give professors the flexibility to create new classes that respond to that changing world, angling material in a way to speak to the concerns of today.  They also give students the freedom to explore a wide variety of subjects that interest them instead of feeling compelled to take yet another survey of a subject, along with tens or hundreds of their peers.

And that leads into my second concern: it’s easy for students to see our classes as nothing more than tick-boxes on a check sheet to be gotten through, and that’s not the way I want them to see education.  Students spend their first two years going down a list of required classes as if they were following a recipe for something they don’t want to make, more or less eat, then move to a major where they do the same, looking for the few classes that look appetizing (to continue the metaphor, sort of).

I don’t teach so students can check boxes off on their way to getting a diploma; I teach to change lives, to change the way students see the world.  I work hard to do that within the paradigm of required classes, but I imagine a system where professors design classes that interest them and students take those classes out of interest, not requirements.

I often hear complaints that students just want a diploma, not an education, but perhaps our system leads them to think that way.  If we tell incoming students about the laundry list of required classes, I can’t see how they would think about education as anything else than something to be endured for an end goal of a diploma.  If we could present a wide view of the world through a wide array of courses, perhaps we could create people who leave wanting to continue to learn, which is the ultimate goal of higher education.

That’s what college did for me.  I had a professor who was clearly curious about the world and the subject he taught, and I wanted to be that way.  Even if I wouldn’t have become a professor (and I wasn’t for a few years of my adult life), I would have kept reading and learning because I wanted to try to understand more about myself, the people around me, and the world at large.  We can create curricula that help this process along, but we have to be willing to give up some control to do so.  That’s always scary, but it can lead to students and professors learning to learn, and that’s a trade most of us would be willing to make.



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