Great Courses

When I was a graduate student, I once queried the local free weekly about writing a column of course reviews drawn from universities and colleges in the region—I thought I'd contact the instructor, get a hold of a syllabus, slip into the back of the room for two or three lectures in a large course or listen in on two or three discussions, and then write a review. I’m glad they declined the offer (ignored, actually) given that I couldn’t possibly have written such a column and remained a viable graduate student. Moreover—and I didn’t know this at the time—very few professors would allow such a thing, and in some institutions, they’d probably be prohibited from giving a stranger permission to sit in on two or three course sessions.

Now there’s a way, sort of, to accomplish something rather like this, and that’s to take advantage of online syllabi and find really great examples of courses out there worthy of praising. A great syllabus isn’t necessarily a great course, but it is likely to be, and a great syllabus is in its own right something useful, interesting and compelling. Syllabus design is one of the subtle but central arts of academic life. A good online syllabus is the antithesis of an online education: it doesn’t pretend to be teaching or instruction, just to be a form of publication, a sort of annotated bibliography. Syllabi are good to think.


Course Index

The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories• Bryn Mawr College • Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein

April 6, 2004 The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories

My Bryn Mawr colleagues Anne Dalke and Paul Grobstein are teaching a course this semester called The Story of Evolution and the Evolution of Stories. This course is a great model for cross-disciplinary--not interdisciplinary--teaching in a liberal arts institution. Sadly, we don’t have much that's comparable at Swarthmore. Our cross-disciplinary co-teaching tends much more to the dour and respectable, to rendering service to sequential curricula or established interdisciplinary programs of study. This course, in contrast, is the kind of course that many different kinds of students from different disciplines could come to and gain a new perspective on their work without necessarily having that sense of having climbed a necessary rung of a preset ladder. I've long thought that most institutions of our type should have a few courses every year that are about a discovered conversation between two colleagues--not to be taught again and again, perhaps to be taught only once, and as exploratory for the faculty as the students. As I look over the idea of the course, I can see a lot of places where I would have a different point of entry into the conversation. I thought immediately of a paper by Peter Bogh Andersen, "Genres as Self-Organizing Systems", that I encountered via William Tozier, or Gary Taylor's book Cultural Selection. This strikes me as a sign of excellence in a course of this kind, that many different people would be able to look at it, immediately "get" the basic concept behind it, and think about some other texts or materials to bring to the table.