Perspective on developing curricula

At the University of Maine, I am currently developing two new courses based on similar material I’ve taught previously at the University of Oregon and Montana State University. I’ve written about several of those classes, including a retrospective after teaching ‘Introduction to Mammalian Microbiomes’ to humanities students. Here, with the spring semester commencing this week, I thought I would share my approaches to developing coursework. While a class doesn’t stand on organizational physique alone, it can go a long way to facilitating your communication with your students, their understanding of course expectations, and their ability to assimilate the information you are disseminating.

Organization of materials

The nature of my teaching means means that I don’t assign readings from a textbook, I curate reading lists for my students from current scientific literature, which changes a little each year. Because of this, and the need for file management, I have a few tricks. First, I have a folder (on my computer and the online teaching tool) specific to readings for that class. I curate the file name with first author, year, and few words from the title so I can keep track of what it is (ex. Zhulin_2015_databases_review). I duplicate that file name in my syllabus, so I can copy and paste instead of writing it out again.

I format my syllabus as a table, and add each reading to the day on which it is assigned. If I move lectures around, I move the whole table row, so I can migrate assignments and readings along with lecture titles. Lastly, because the readings are specific to lecture and date assigned, I mimic that order in my file names by numbering them all instead of leaving them in alphabetic order (ex. 10_Zhulin_2015_databases_review), to facilitate knowing when and which is assigned.

And I don’t just number them by order, I number them by lecture so students or I can just match the lecture number across the lecture files, assigned readings, etc.

Written assignments (when logistically possible)

A stack of papers facedown on a table.

There’s no easy way to grade written assignments from students, but I prefer it to exam-style assessments. Particularly in teaching microbial ecology and sequencing data analysis, there’s not a lot of strict memorization like there is in anatomy. The material lends itself more to critical thinking and debating theory, to presenting a scientific argument, to problem solving, or to composing mock scientific manuscripts. In allowing students the word count to work through their thoughts, they are able to find the words to express their opinion on, say, the Hygiene Hypothesis when only weeks before they didn’t know that some microbes can turn the immune system on or off.

Written assignments allow me to give them feedback, including grammatical corrections, suggestion on sentence structure, pointing out leaps of logic where they left readers behind, and of course, on the strength of the scientific argument. This is particularly helpful when learning to write technical science.

Red pen.
Photo credit: Merriam-Webster

In giving students the agency to choose a topic to write about from the curricula tasting menu I’ve provided in my lectures, I receive back more information than just what I provided, which keeps things interesting for me. And, in giving them assignments which practice their writing voice, I witness their progression towards mature scientific writing.

Stacking assignments for improved retention

It takes time to become familiar with new information. That’s why school subjects are taught multiple times, or in specific orders, as you progress through education. I have 13 – 15 weeks in a semester (or 10 in a quarter!) to on-board students and teach them a skill. For most of the students I have taught, my class is their first introduction, or their first formal introduction, to the subject.

Especially for my host-associated microbial courses, there are hundreds of years-and-counting worth of history which led us to our current understanding of the microbes that inhabit us. Without that history, an explanation of the available technology, and a discussion of how that technology shaped the view we had, I can’t do justice to the majority of the coursework where I explain how we discovered the relationship between salivation and the microbial community geography in your mouth. The first section of my ‘host-associated’ course includes this background information, and a discussion of current technology, which is reiterated when later discussing literature and how technological shortcomings can hamper our understanding of a microbial community.

To give students more time to practice the material, I give related readings, have a guided discussion at the end of lectures, and stack assignments. Students start with a non-technical summary of a paper; 1-ish paragraph where they have to introduce the paper and why it was done, the methods used, and a major result or two. Trying to explain a complex experiment in simple terms is a great way for students to gain familiarity. When it comes time to write a two-page essay for a take-home exam, I allow the students to build off those summaries, if they choose.

An inclusive syllabus

A syllabus is a document which encompasses the important information for the class, including meeting times and rooms, grading policy, lecture and assignment schedule, required reading materials, and more. It can be used to recruit students to sign up for the class, and once in attendance, it’s the first impression students have. It’s where they refer for questions about the course, what’s expected of them, and where to find instructions on assignments. I write my syllabi in a way that makes sense to me, the instructor, and I welcome feedback from students when my instructions are confusing. But, I also welcome feedback from different student populations in order to make the language and presentation of the document more approachable. Sometimes you just need something to break the ice. Like a paper turkey hat.

Sue wearing a paper hat shaped like a turkey.
Wearing the turkey hat that my mentee and I made.

I haven’t actually worn a turkey hat to teach a class, that’s too informal. I dress up like an anatomically-annotated dissected cat, because I’m a professional. Or, I ran regular class discussions that occasionally got heated and were monopolized by a fraction of the class. The next year, I took a stronger moderator stance and would impose more restrictions (“Ok the next comment HAS to use the word “microbes”). I don’t like calling on students, so the next time I have discussions I think I’m going to give them all D20 dice and have them roll for initiative on the order of presenting comments. I also added this to my syllabi:

Class participation: Students are expected to participate in discussions in class.  I strive to create inclusive discussions, but if students still find it challenging to participate please notify me and I will alter the discussion format as needed.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

Most universities also require text or links to their campus policies, driven by federal, state, or university law. These include a statement about accommodations for disabilities, although many faculty are happy to make accommodations without the student receiving prior approval. I started allowing students to occasionally attend lectures by video conferencing, if they notified me ahead of time. It allowed students who were ill or traveling to keep pace with the material, and I have even remotely conference-videoed in to a student’s laptop to present when I was home sick but didn’t want to cancel class.

New this year, I’ve included text about students missing classes for parenting or caregiving responsibilities, something I don’t currently participate in, so it was not something I thought to include information on until someone else (Jenn Perry) gave me their perspective. Now I have this:

Pregnancy, lactation, and parenting: I am happy to make accommodations for students based on pregnancy, lactation, and parental needs, as well as work with the Office of Equal Opportunities. Maine state and UMaine policy allows students to breastfeed in any space, including in class. If a lactation space is required, please contact E.O. for arrangements.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

Similarly, a tweet by Dave Baltrus about including inclusive statements such as information for food insecure students led me to add this:

Food insecure? Need clothes? Check out the Black Bear Exchange’s Food Pantry: https://umaine.edu/volunteer/black-bear-exchange/ or Old Town Crossroads Ministry.

AVS 590 Syllabus spring 2020

And finally, I added text about mandatory reporting. As a public university employee, I am obligated to notify the University of Maine Title IX office about criminal actions towards or by anyone on campus. If a student reveals information to me, I have to pass it on to the Title IX office which will then discretely reach out to the student with resources. The office advocates for anyone on campus, but they are particular important in situations involving students who are low on the power scale and cannot advocate for themselves. While my door is always open to students looking for help, I felt it was important for them to know that I might not be able to keep the meeting confidential.

Inclusiveness in the classroom is important to me, because if students don’t feel welcome, comfortable, and free from hunger, they can’t learn. Despite what opponents think, this doesn’t involve “coddling” or “being too soft”. It means being realistic in my expectations about how people learn and what else they are dealing with that might be inhibiting that. It means that I learn to be more proficient at communication and personnel management, which are vital skills for academics. And it means that we all elevate our skills together.

Silhouettes of four people jumping in a dark cave.