Best. Course. Ever.

Note: This column first ran in the University of Cincinnati's ProfPost on June 21, 2010.

I’ve just finished teaching what has easily been the most satisfying and most successful course in my ten years here at the University of Cincinnati. And (as if this column didn’t start out self-indulgently enough already) it all goes back to a column that I wrote for ProfPost in March. Right after sending off that column (“The iPad and the iProf”), in which I argued in part against PowerPoint for the deadening effect that it can have on classroom interactivity, I marched up the stairs of Swift Hall, dimmed the lights in Room 800 and began to project my PowerPoint presentation on the giant screen. The irony wasn’t lost on me, and I decided that in the spring I would actually try to put into practice some of the ideas that I have been reading and writing about on ProfPost over the past year.

As I look back at these posts—whether they are about the use of classroom technologies or semester conversion or mentoring new faculty—they always seem to revolve around one central issue: openness. Opening up our ideas of what constitutes a source for scholarly research, opening up our repertoire of instructional techniques, opening up the question of how to assess student achievements. So when I began to plan my Spring European Studies course on Contemporary European Cinema, I sought to make it as open as possible. Here are the four principles I followed as I planned and taught this course.

1. Bring together a diverse group of students.

We have a wonderfully diverse student body at UC. It is commonplace in general education courses to find a design student sitting next to an engineering student, a student in her first year sitting next to a student in his fourth (or fifth, or sixth…) year, a student from Germany sitting next to a student from Mason. But by the time we get to upper-level courses, programs tend to lock their own students in and other students out. There are often sound pedagogical reasons for doing this, but I think that we ought to provide more opportunities for non-specialists to engage with each other later in their college careers in small, discussion-based, advanced seminars. In this course, I combined a graduate seminar with a 300-level undergraduate course and opened it to students across the university. It takes good will on the part of the students and sometimes good management on the part of the instructor, but when it works it is amazing how productive a discussion can be that includes acting students from CCM, graduate students in foreign languages from A&S, and painting students from DAAP. Next time I’ll try to work in the engineering and medical students.

2. Outsource the syllabus.

Probably the most radical move that I made in this course was to outsource the compilation of my syllabus. When I started to work on it, I noticed that I was including the films that one would expect to include in a university film course: those that have attracted scholarly attention, those that come with their own built-in interpretations, those where you know in advance where the discussion is going to go and what points are going to be made. I was procrastinating on writing my syllabus by reading comments on an online discussion forum that I belong to: the Internet Film Club (internetfilmclub.info). This is a group of smart, engaged film buffs from around the world who come together virtually to discuss their shared interest. I decided to post a message outlining the parameters of the course (European films made since 2000 dealing in some way with the topic of Europe today or in recent history, available in the US in English or subtitled, etc.) and invited group members to make suggestions. I woke up the next morning to find my inbox full of thoughtful responses from people across the world. The dozens of films suggested included some that I had thought of, some that I had seen but had not considered, and some that I had not even heard of. These suggestions forced me to approach the topic differently and ended up becoming the basis of the course syllabus.

3. Outsource the discussion.

Fresh off my successfully unloading the work of creating the course onto smart, enthusiastic, unpaid film-club members, I took the next step and made the tuition-paying students take up the work of managing the classroom discussion. I asked the students to work in pairs and kick off the conversation each session. Even those of us who pride ourselves on conducting open discussions in class have to admit that we come in with an agenda of some sort and that having the first word in class helps to set this agenda. The students’ presentations varied widely in style and substance, of course (that’s the point, after all), but each week was livelier and more open than it would have been if I had not given up control and trusted them to get us going.

4. Open up the assignments.

Rather than build toward a big final paper, as I customarily ask my students to do in my seminar courses, I assigned a short paper each week to be e-mailed to me before the class. The paper topic was simple: React to the two films on the syllabus for the week. One can easily run into problems by being too vague in assignments, so I provided questions early on and—most importantly—gave detailed responses to their papers with as short a turn-around time as possible. When the papers came in early, I could incorporate them into the discussion. The next step would be to open up the parameters of the discussion further so that students are communicating with each other outside of the classroom.

Open Source Courses

These are the four simple—and, frankly, not terribly revolutionary—principles that I drew upon to make an Open Source Course. And it all took place within the still rather strict confines of the discipline of university education. It’s a short step toward what I like to think of as the new Wikiversity. As we go forward, we will have to learn to balance the importance of being open with the importance of curation and discipline. The results will surely vary with each experiment, but I was happy with the way it worked this time.