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THE ASSOCIATE

Knowing when it’s time to reboot your course offerings

What happens when a professors risks being interesting.

By ALAN MACEACHERN | February 11, 2015

Early one morning the sun was shining, I was laying in bed, wonderin’ how I could change direction and in what topic I was well-read.

When I was first hired at Western, it was a big adjustment – as if, after 20 years of schooling, they put me on the day shift. But it was made easier because I was primarily teaching courses already on the calendar. That was partly because I was jumping aboard a rolling train and partly because I was the new guy, expected to give the lectures that more senior folk were tired of trying to explain. And it was partly, perhaps, because I’m in History, and that means that my colleagues and I temperamentally have an extravagant – some would say excessive – respect for the past, including past curriculum.

(Writing this column is a constant battle between imagining that my academic experiences are universal and knowing full well they aren’t. Your classroom has an eyewash station? You give multiple-choice exams? You’re, like, a woman?)

Don’t think twice, it was all right; you’ve got to serve somebody. But time is a jet plane, it moves too fast. I taught many of the same courses year-in, year-out, and once I got them to where I wanted them, it seemed as if every year I was saying the same things, telling the same jokes, even anticipating lecture questions and seminar debate. I grew to resent good teaching evaluations, from students who didn’t know enough or expect enough to see that the stale prof was giving a stale course. Bland on bland.

It’s not like I was a man of constant sorrow: I married a girl from this north country, we had little Sadie, the diapers we were a-changing, and I got tangled up in Blue’s Clues. But if it takes a tot to laugh, it takes a brain to cry. In terms of teaching, the only thing I knew how to do was to keep on keeping on. I offered courses that hadn’t been taught in a  while, and I developed senior-level and graduate courses focused more narrowly on my research. And, finally, in the belief that he not busy being born is busy dying, I took the ultimate step:
I would risk trying to be interesting.

Many new courses are just variations of the existing curriculum, often with a lame gesture to pop culture: The History of Canadian Confederation becomes Canadian Horror Story: Quebec and Confederation. But occasionally, a course is proposed that is deliberately, unselfconsciously, broadly interesting. You know the type I mean. The History, Culture, and Science of Beer at King’s College. Religion and Disney at Memorial. Bob Dylan in the 60s at Mount Royal. Zombie Apocalypse: Panic and Paranoia from the Black Death to Today at my own university (the finest school, all right). The sort of courses that you could imagine enjoying and, in the right hands, learning a lot.

Yet if you are going to propose such a course, you must realize the danger. Colleagues will tut-tut about lack of intellectual seriousness. Without reading your syllabus, they will blame you for declining academic standards. They will call you Mr. Pandering Man, desperate to – in that strangely universal formulation – “put bums in seats.” (Will a psychology professor out there please explain to me the faculty and administrators’ obsession with students’ bums?) If the course becomes popular, they will see it as proving their point. And if it doesn’t – if Mitsou and Canadian Culture only attracts two students – that’s worse. That means you mistook your personal obsession for a common one, and divulged it.

But attempting to be interesting is worth the risk. Our students deserve to learn the world through the prism of the world, rather than through the prism of a past curriculum. More to the point, they deserve us at our best, and we are at our best when we are intent on interesting them and on keeping ourselves interested. We don’t need to apologize for trying to be interesting. Why, I read recently about a group of Swedish scientists who, just for fun, compete to hide Bob Dylan lyrics in their peer-reviewed papers.

As I write this, I am about to introduce a new course on climate change of the past, present and future. It’s intimidating as hell, to be honest: there are so many past cultures to discuss, so much science to communicate to history students (and for me to understand first), and so much new work being published all the time. But it’s the most underexplored historical topic and most important contemporary one I can imagine. The change in the weather is bound to be extreme – hurricane; howling winds, and the snow outrageous; hard rain that’s going to fall – and I want to help students take heed of the stormy weather.

So stick with me. Anyhow, things should start to get interesting right about now.

ABOUT ALAN MACEACHERN
Alan MacEachern
Alan MacEachern is associate professor and graduate chair of history at Western University and director of NiCHE: Network in Canadian History & Environment. His column appears in every second issue.
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  1. David Fenske / July 8, 2015 at 5:00 pm

    Good column. Love the Dylan references.

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