Survey courses should inspire

CollegeWhen I returned to graduate school nearly a decade ago, I knew that teaching would be my career focus once I finished the program because it is my passion, and I believe that students deserve an instructor who makes them a priority.  So, I couldn’t help but feel insulted the evening that I heard a respected classmate denigrate community colleges or when some of my professors discouraged me from considering this career path.  After all, I graduated from one myself.  Moreover, I encountered some of the best teachers of my entire college experience during those years of my life.

Yes, community colleges primarily offer survey classes at the 100 and 200 level.  What a lot of people don’t realize is that an introductory course provides many opportunities to explore content and innovate with one’s methodology if you push yourself.  Therefore, I reject the notion that a survey class has to be boring for either the students or the instructor.  During a sixteen week semester, there are usually more than a dozen major topics to address and any one of them can be expanded or contracted depending on the supplementary materials that a person can find.

For example, civil liberties is a topic that we examine in my Federal Government class using the landmark case Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) because I want students to understand where our right to privacy originates.  We spend an entire class meeting assessing Justice Douglas and Justice Black’s arguments.  While I never share my own views on the issue, I teach them how to deconstruct the respective opinions in an effort to discern who they think is more convincing and why.  In addition, when we discuss political participation, I use an activity I created this year that requires the class to generate a lengthy list of the different means that people employ to influence government policy and operation.  Next, I ask small groups of five students each to read three scenarios (i.e. community problems) and decide how they would respond to (i.e. resolve) each of them.  Both of these lessons go over really well.  That said, I always have the option to shift the focus elsewhere as I continue to sculpt my curriculum because no two semesters are exactly the same.

At this point, I’m really excited about the spring semester because I’m teaching Honors Texas Government with the theme “human interaction and experience” that I developed to deepen our understanding of people and institutions across the state.  Some of the secondary excerpts that I have chosen to incorporate into the reading seminar component of the course explore the complexity of human relationships.  We’re going to explore such topics as the social organization of different native people like the Coahuiltecans, the extralegal reaction of whites toward blacks accused of criminal acts, how segregation impacted Hispanic farmers and ranchers, how the fear of communism affected the public school system’s curriculum and elections in Houston, and the political implications of the Texas Model.  We’re even going to look at the legal battle between Texas and New Mexico over water from the Rio Grande River; a battle that has found its way to the Supreme Court.  Through a combination of historical and contemporary examples, my hope is to inform students about so much more than how institutions like our state legislature function.  We’ll see how they respond and I’ll make the necessary curriculum changes this coming summer.

As a practitioner, I think classroom dynamics are influenced by multiple factors, and one of those factors is the effort an instructor makes to build a course that generates interest and encourages students to engage one another on the content.  Since a survey class is often the only opportunity we’ll have to directly expose them to our discipline, we really need to make it count.  How many professions offer a person the latitude to experiment on a daily basis in an effort to figure out which approach works best?  Not many.  That’s why we need to push ourselves, especially if we truly believe that learning never ends.

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