In the following I describe how I updated one of my courses, Nation and Immigration, based on lessons from faculty courses focused on teaching, teaching conferences, my own observations and research on best teaching practices, and feedback from a faculty member who observed my teaching in another course and from students.
Conceptualizing the course for the first time
Syllabus / Content (AMST341 Nation and Immigration Syllabus 2010)
This course was intended to introduce students to a way of thinking about immigration that looks at: a. the centrality of the definition of nation to immigration, b. how nation and nationalism are expressed and constantly reaffirmed, c. migration issues in- and outside of the United States. I divided the course into two main sections: one on concepts of nation, nationalism, and national identity, and the other on immigration.
For an understanding of nation, nationalism and national identity, I chose excerpts of several classic texts to define nation in different contexts, readings on the psychology of nationalism, the importance of history in national identity, the nationalization of youth in U.S. history, the roles of race and gender in the nation, and the role of nationalism in everyday life.
For my selection of readings, I used these goals as guide: I wanted students to be exposed to different disciplinary approaches to studying migration and be sure that they also understood the more personal and human side of immigration. I also wanted students to attain general knowledge of immigration history and past policies and to be able to compare immigration related issues in the United States to those in other countries. In addition, I wanted to incorporate information that would help them navigate contemporary immigration-related debates. To expose students to “real world” issues related to the course theme, I invited two guest speakers: a staff attorney from CAIR (Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights) to talk about his work with detained immigrants and a faculty member and documentary film maker to discuss her recently completed film, On the Line, about her encounters with members of the “Minuteman Project” and immigrant rights activists at the U.S/Mexico border.
Class meetings consisted of lecture and discussion. In order to engage students in their own learning, I based parts of our discussions on their questions for the readings. I also encouraged students to describe personal experiences in relationship to the course topic and include current events in discussions in order to emphasize the close relationship to their lives. I included two mock tests in class to diversify student learning: one on the U.S. citizenship test, the other on “Immigration: Myths & Realities.”
I required formal blog entries for our weekly readings, for which students had guidelines on how to write them. In order to help students familiarize themselves with available tools for immigration data and learn more about immigration in other countries, I created an assignment based on the datahub available through the Migration Policy Institute. In order to develop skills in evaluating their own work as well as that of others, one of my assignments included that students provide feedback on each other’s midterm papers based on guidelines I provided. To practice their presentation skills and working collaboratively, I required group presentations at the end of the semester, based on a research topic of their choice. Again, students were asked to evaluate each other’s presentations based on criteria I had provided.
In order to learn what was working well for students and what I could do to improve their learning, I requested course feedback twice during the semester. In response to their feedback, I told students what changes I would make for the rest of the semester.
Revising the course
Syllabus / Content (AMST321 Nation and Immigration Syllabus 2012)
My main goal for this iteration of the course was for the readings, discussion, assignments and lectures to be more clearly linked to the course goals and outcomes. For more transparency and to make assignments more meaningful, I included my intentions for them on the syllabus along with how they will be evaluated.
One of the main suggestions from students for improving the course was that I give more weight to immigration over nation, nationalism, and national identity in the course. Instead of removing material completely from the course, I decided to replace some of the readings on nation and rather provide the information in lecture form. Based on my observation of student learning, I also decided to reduce the weekly readings, so that we would have enough time to explore them more thoroughly in class. The content remained but was now delivered in lecture form.
I personally wanted to include more discussion about interdisciplinary scholarship and a stronger focus on public history, so I invited a guest speaker who uses literature and films as primary sources, two guest speakers who use material culture as primary sources, and a cultural geographer and activist, conducting research on the U.S./Mexico border. I also included regular conversations about the discipline out of which the readings come, their writing style, and sources and methods used.
From a faculty member, who had visited a different course, I learned that in my lectures I should provide more guidance so students can follow more easily. For this iteration of the course, I therefore regularly stated what we will cover, covered it, and then reviewed what we have covered. I also included transitions from one theme/topic to the next and references to what we had discussed in previous meetings. The faculty member had also suggested that I ban the use of electronic devices in the classroom as she had observed distracted students. I followed her advice.
Students in the first iteration of the course had complained about the monotony of having to write formal blog entries each week. After conducting research on better ways for getting students to read assigned readings, I changed the assignment to be more flexible and less odious. I sent questions for the readings in email form, which students had to answer by replying to my email before our meeting. Student feedback indicated that this format did motivate students to read and that it was less intimidating, especially as the responses were not graded and counted as completed or not.
In order to support students’ exploration of the course topic with activities other than reading & discussion, I assigned several small tasks that forced them to do outside research. Again, these tasks were not graded but counted as completed or not. One of the assignments was a group project. To further reduce the anxiety that often comes with group work, each student had to contribute an individual entry to a wiki on immigration laws. In this way, no single student was dependent on another group member, yet the completed product was the result of a group effort. Since some students were not familiar with the wiki tool within Blackboard, I sent them a short video that I had created using a software tool that captured my computer screen and my voice as I performed the tasks the students were asked to perform (see Technology in the Classroom for software tools I have used).
Since the voluntary use of a private, course-specific Facebook page has had mixed results in previous classes, I made students’ contributions count towards their participation grades. I also began the course by asking students to introduce themselves on Facebook and to comment on a website I posted to “break the ice” with each other. I posted weekly questions for students to ponder that related to that week’s topic and provided links to websites or blogs that related to our course. Students were encouraged to post here as well. Some students took advantage of this tool, while others did not.
In my quest for how to provide useful feedback on writing assignments, I had learned that students can easily get confused over the relative importance of different types of feedback they receive from their professors on a single paper (grammar, spelling, structure, logic, etc.). I therefore created two writing assignments, for which I provided different kinds of feedback. For a shorter movie review, I provided extensive feedback on grammar, spelling, and sentence structure, and noted more generally, if there were issues with analysis, logic, use of sources, or structure. For the final paper, I took a different approach. Since my primary goal was for students to hone their research and analytical skills, as well as their ability to communicate ideas effectively, I requested a shorter version of the final paper, for which I provided feedback primarily about analysis, logic, use of sources, structure, and additional questions to consider. I noted if someone needed to pay attention to specific, repetitive grammatical errors, but did not mark the errors individually. In order to tie the final paper to the course goals and outcomes, I provided specific questions students needed to address in their final papers to ensure they demonstrated the desired course outcomes while exploring the topic they were interested in.