When I was a graduate student and was assigned to teach (and design) a course, the first thing I did was order the textbooks for that particular topic. It seemed to me then, that everything would fall into place once I had accomplished the major task of choosing a textbook and figuring out the readings. In contrast, now, when I am about to design a new course, the specific readings sometimes end up being one of the last things I choose.
I have sat through a few teaching seminars now (as a graduate student and as a young faculty) and I know that a lot of people attend these kinds of seminars to learn how to deal with the “nuts and bolts” of teaching: how many pages of reading to assign, what kind of a system/scale to use for grading, what to include in a syllabus, how much feedback to give on written assignments etc. These questions are, of course, not unimportant and should be addressed as part of teacher training seminars. But what I want to focus on here is one aspect of teacher training that is far less concrete and very often overlooked in teacher training programs: epistemology and how that relates to pedagogy. That is, how does and should your conception of knowledge (and more specifically our disciplinary knowledge) relate to your teaching style and methods.
How can your conception of your disciplinary knowledge (or knowledge more generally) impact how you design a course? Let’s start with knowledge. Is your view of knowledge that it is a concrete set of Truths that must be passed on? Or do you believe knowledge is shaped by perspective and location? Does it exist like “nuggets of gold” – solid, unchanging, and needing safe-guarding? While most academics have answered these questions about their disciplines at some point, what is often missing is the linking of our abstract conception of knowledge to the very real practice of teaching. That the two should be in harmony is often ignored by those teaching us how to teach!
Once you make this relationship between epistemology and pedagogy central to your teaching and course design, everything else—the kinds of assignments you use, whether you use a textbook or not, whether you allow revisions, whether you do in-class exams or take-home papers/essays—follows from this relationship. Let’s take assignments as an example. If I am a firm believer that knowledge is often malleable, changing and context dependent, then my methods of assessing my students should reflect that view. Does it seem fair or even logical to test my students with multiple-choice questions if I hold the view above? Does it not make more sense, to assess students’ knowledge in a way that is congruent with my beliefs regarding knowledge? In the case above, it means assigning papers, and written assignments, allowing for students to interpret the information I provide, instead of asking them to regurgitate dates, definitions, or names in the format of a multiple choice exam or True and False with only one correct answer.
Thinking about the relationship between teaching and my own conception of knowledge is what has led me to shun textbooks. The format of a textbook: the bold and italicized definitions, reliance on summaries of original research instead of the actual research, test-banks for teachers for instance, all reinforce a knowledge-as-nuggets-of-gold approach to teaching and learning. If I don’t hold that view as a researcher, why should I hold that view as a teacher?
So instead of turning to textbooks, here are the questions I ask myself before developing a course. For me, the fact that my answers to these questions have to be consistent with my conception of knowledge makes this part much easier than before:
- What do I want students to take away from this course? And I don’t mean regurgitating our jargon-filled “course objectives” here with all the buzz-words: I mean: What are the central ideas/themes that drive this course. What is the most important thing that I want students to learn from this course?
- How can I best get these central ideas across? Will it be a lecture? A seminar with student leaders for each section? A class discussion?
- Given my own conception of knowledge, and what I believe the central themes of this course are, how will I assess the students?
I realize that sometimes when faced with large enrollments, we may not have the luxury to stick to our ideals. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
New London, Connecticut in the US
Afshan Jafar is a member of the editorial collective at University  of  Venus  and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .