Reclaiming Course Design as Disciplinary Terrain

Posted by on Feb 13, 2014 in Teaching Anthropology | 0 comments

Reclaiming Course Design as Disciplinary Terrain

Lauren Miller Griffith, Ph.D.
University of Arkansas

February 13, 2014

Keywords: course design, learning objectives, scholarship

Prior to joining the Department of Anthropology at the University of Arkansas, I spent two years at a different institution working as an instructional designer. It was a wonderful experience in many ways, but the title always felt funny to me. At times, I downright resented it. Why, you might ask. I am first and foremost an anthropologist, a rigorous scholar in a traditional discipline who just happens to enjoy and be good at teaching. Having the title of instructional designer seemed to reduce my experience, knowledge of my students, and understanding of my subject to a mere formula. Perhaps that is why I am also frustrated with the various models of “course design” that are promoted by many faculty development professionals. Yes, many of these models do make sense. For example, the notion of backwards design promoted by Wiggins and McTighe is very sound. Start with your learning objectives and work backwards from there to determine the texts, lecture topics, lessons, and assessments that you need to make sure students meet those objectives. Likewise, Dee Fink’s model of integrated course design stresses the interplay between objectives, learning activities, and assessments, which will in turn be affected by situational factors like one’s classroom and teaching context. It sounds easy enough. But even I, someone who worked in a teaching center, find this hard to implement when it comes to developing my own courses.

Having spent a number of years learning how do conduct research and write a scholarly argument, I face any new problem by immediately thinking about my thesis and supporting evidence. Therefore, I’d like to propose a new idea. One that might help our colleagues and administrators see teaching as a scholarly activity on par with research rather than an unskilled task that can be designed by someone outside of the discipline like an “instructional designer.” What if instead of thinking about learning objectives, we made sure that every course had a thesis? The one big idea, yes I’m using Wiggins and McTighe’s phrasing here, that drives the entire course. For example, the opening paragraph in my syllabus for a course titled “Social Justice in a Global Society” reads:

Globalization is nothing new, but has intensified as of late. Once Europeans saw the riches of the New World, they began colonizing these new territories. This is the climate in which the social sciences originated and early social scientists were often complicit in the missions of their governments. Fortunately, that has changed and many of us now strive to be agents of change in an unfair world. Colonialism legitimizes a system of exploitation in which there is a crystallization of racist principles and self-perpetuating systems arise to keep groups of people and nations in peripheral positions within our world system. Globalization & imperialism perpetuate systems of inequality today. Both the people affected by these problems and some social scientists are working on improving these issues. This course will help you understand the forces that shape global social problems through an anthropological and sociological lens and articulate how you can work to make a positive difference in our society.

Learning objectives are clearly embedded in this overview, but it encapsulates the story of the course. It reads much like an opening paragraph in a scholarly paper.

Starting from here, it becomes a familiar task to amass the evidence one would need to believe my thesis. If this were a paper, my literature review would need to get my readers up to speed on how European interest in material gain motivated colonialism and how the institutions associated with colonialism, including our very own academic discipline, have created social injustices that continue up to the present. In the classroom, this translates into a series of readings, lectures, and activities that convey the same ideas albeit at a more personal level so that students assimilate this new knowledge into their mental schema. This introduction generally comprises the first few weeks of a course taught in a traditional format.

In a scholarly paper, one might next expect data and results from which we can draw new conclusions. In the classroom, this might translate into discussions during which students share their own reflections on readings or even go into the field themselves and collect data as part of a level and context appropriate assignment. Each class session involves active engagement with the overarching scholarly problem by focusing on smaller components of the argument. Instructors can guide this process making sure that, whether we ourselves introduce the content via lecture or allow the students to contribute with discussion and experiential learning, students engage with evidence that will support the course’s basic thesis.

Finally, in both a scholarly paper and a well-designed course, there should always be some coherent conclusion that reminds our audience that the thesis and evidence we have presented has broader relevance. Reflective activities at the end of the semester leading up to a culminating exam or paper serve just this purpose. I’m not trying to argue that there is no place for a teaching center on campus, their consultation services can be very helpful in understanding the dynamics of our classroom and staying on the cutting edge of new pedagogical developments. However, I do think we need to question models that are imposed on us from higher-education generalists and develop new models that are more aligned with our training as disciplinary scholars. This basic model will, of course, need to be supplemented with testing/assessment and with so-called “best practices” in engaging learners, but let’s remember that course design is not a mysterious process for those of us who know our disciplines. It is merely a different application of the same scholarly skills we have taken so much care in cultivating.


Lauren Miller Griffith, Ph.D. is a visiting assistant professor at the University of Arkansas. Her research focuses on the intersections of performance, tourism, and education in Brazil, Belize, and the U.S. Specifically, she focuses on the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira and how non-Brazilian practitioners use travel to the source of capoeira’s birth to increase their legitimacy within this genre. Lauren’s current interests include the link between tourism and conservation education in Belize. She is particularly interested in how landscapes become encoded with memories and how this specificity of place can foster intercultural competence in “sun, sand, and sea” tourists.


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