The Catholic University of America
A pair of Oct. 8 Washington Post articles about how popular and unique college classes are created mentioned several classes at CUA. Diane Bunce, professor, chemistry, and Ernie Suarez, professor, English, were mentioned in the articles. See the articles below.

Charting New Courses To Make Subjects Click

From: The Washington Post
Date: Oct. 8, 2007
Author: Valerie Strauss

The intense exchange among students in Room 394 of Georgetown University's Walsh building last week was of Descartes, how humans know they exist and whether they are really nothing more than brains resting in vats. It was standard fare for a course in philosophy.

But to prepare for the session, Prof. Linda Wetzel did something unorthodox. She aired an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- the one in which Capt. Jean-Luc Picard finds himself living an alternate life on a non-Federation planet. And during the discussion, Wetzel referred to "data" not as a collection of facts but as "Data, our favorite android," a character in the TV show.

This is Phil-180, also known as "Philosophy & Star Trek."

"It's got a better title than 'Metaphysics, Metaphysics and More Metaphysics,' " Wetzel joked. "But seriously, the show can display the philosophy, doing the job for you in a way that a thousand words can't."

Courses such as the one Wetzel designed, which frequently attract students because they are unconventional, engage students in the learning process better than traditionally conceived classes, educators say. But, they add, there just aren't anywhere near enough of them.

"I think some courses are being designed better today, but to put that in context, that means we've moved from 10 percent to maybe 25 percent," said L. Dee Fink, an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and an instructional development expert. "There's still a massive percentage of poorly designed courses."

Creating a great course takes thought, ingenuity and skill: activities that spark different kinds of thinking and not just memorization; teachers who care about the subject and interact well with students; and teachers who have a good system of assessment.

Still, it is not a science.

"The act of putting together a coherent, interesting, up-to-date and relevant course is something that cannot be reduced to an algorithm," said Robert Halliday, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Utica College in New York. "Some faculty are more skilled at it than others."

Effective courses cross over two or more disciplines, a recognition that the tidy lines between disciplines that dominated teaching in the past have been wiped away by modern science and thinking, educators say. Some are created to appeal to non-majors of a particular subject, recognition that undergraduates should be exposed to different ideas. Someone majoring in English does not need the same level of detail for a physics course as someone majoring in the subject.

Most often, the course is initiated by professors, but inspiration can come from other sources. At Catholic University, some English majors who enjoyed a "Rock and Poetry" course led by Ernie Suarez asked him to develop a course on William Faulkner, and he obliged. At Trinity Washington University, students wanted a course on the films of Spike Lee, and they got one.

Still, too many courses are drawn up in the traditional mold, without opportunities for student engagement. Critics say some professors don't know how to design a course, don't want to learn a better way and, in the name of academic freedom, are not forced to do so by their institutions. Individual courses sometimes face a rigorous approval process, but many institutions do not pay enough attention to whether their collections of courses are effectively preparing students for the complicated world they will inherit, educators say.

"In regards to a very thorough effort to figure out what we want our graduates to be able to do and how do we know we are doing it, I think there are very, very few institutions that do it in a serious way," said Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University.

"It is at the beginning stages, and I would have to say that the so-called leading colleges and universities have not been leaders in this effort," Bok added. "If anything, they have not shown as much interest as second- and third-tier colleges. So we have a long way to go."

Wetzel's class and other seemingly unorthodox courses -- including the University of Wisconsin at Madison's "Soap Operas and Social Change," a look at gender roles -- are often derided by some faculty as lightweight and by students as "easy A's." Some might be, but many, including Wetzel's classes, are tough, her students say.

George Plitnik, a physics professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, said some students take his course, "The Science of Harry Potter," a physics course for non-majors, thinking they can breeze through. Some drop out after the first few weeks and move to an easier section.

Those who stay learn about physics by examining concepts raised in the Potter books. For example, a wizard's ability to "apparate," or move almost instantly from one place to another, is tackled by looking at the notion of wormholes, theoretical tunnels in space through which matter can supposedly move.

It might seem silly to those outside academia that a student can take "Baseball in American History" instead of "History of the U.S.," said Jim Foster, interim provost of George Fox University in Newberg, Ore. But history is a methodology, not just content, and the methods of historians can be learned in the baseball course, he said.

A course titled "Detective Fiction" isn't exactly the equivalent of "British Literature to 1660," but literary criticism is taught in both courses, and that may be the "most important teaching goal, more important than specific content," he said.

"One way of getting into what is going on in a student's everyday life is looking at pop culture," Fink said. Wetzel and other professors "doing similar things are trying to build a bridge between what the discipline has in it and everyday life. To me, that's a good sign.

Wetzel said "Star Trek" was a factor in her decision to become a philosopher. For many years, it was difficult for her to get students to get their minds around Descartes' writings in which he questions the existence of the entire external world. Getting them to understand the concept through "Star Trek" helps.

"I took the course because my best friend is a Trekkie," said Jack Dealy, 22, a senior. "The course shows you that you can critically think about something in a different way."

For a unit on personal identity, Wetzel will show the episode "Second Chances," in which the character Cmdr. William Riker finds that a duplicate of himself has been living on another planet.

Students say her approach, while seemingly different from the typical philosophy course, teaches the same complex theme but in a more accessible way.

"Professor Wetzel is less structured and has more fun with assignments," said Logan Rhyne, 20, a junior. "But the class is far from easy."

Students Line Up At the Door for A Seat in . . .

From: The Washington Post
Date: Oct. 8, 2007
Author: Valerie Strauss

Some college courses are in high demand because the topic interests students or the professor is particularly dynamic. And sometimes the reasons are more difficult to pinpoint.

Catholic University, Washington:

Popular classes include "Green Architecture," "Medical Engineering," "Web Programming and Design," "Philosophy and God." "Chemistry in Our Lives" is a course for non-majors covering such topics as nature, air pollution, global warming, ozone depletion and energy. Associate Prof. Diane Bunce likes to have her students dress up on Halloween as their favorite element.

Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore:

A particularly popular course is "Contemporary International Politics," an introduction to the subject with an emphasis on continuity and change in international politics and the causes of war and peace. Although the school has a reputation as a pre-med factory, international studies was the most popular major last year in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and second to biomedical engineering overall.

Emory University, Atlanta:

Students say Associate Prof. Dwight Andrews's love of jazz and excitement about the material in the introductory course "Jazz -- Its Evolution and Essence" are contagious. And even with a workload that would intimidate a graduate student, Prof. Ken Stein's "The Arab-Israeli Conflict," an introductory survey course, draws in students.

University of California at Berkeley:

"General Astronomy," a description of modern astronomy designed to attract non-majors, is called by some at the school "the best undergraduate class ever." It is taught by famed astronomer Alexei Filippenko, who has been voted "Best Professor" on campus five times.

Trinity Washington University:

Among the popular courses are the 300-level "Editorial Cartooning," created after a professor attended a seminar on humor at an academic conference. Also popular is "International Terrorism," created after Sept. 11, 2001, by two history and politics professors.

George Fox University, Newberg, Ore.:

Faculty try out topics for courses that can become part of the regular offerings if popular. Currently, "Interior Design" and "Sociology of Sexuality" are being offered; the design class has seven students enrolled, and the sexuality class stopped accepting students when it hit its maximum of 25.

George Washington University, Washington:

Students are drawn to political science courses and media courses, not coincidentally because the school is in a city that is at the center of both areas of concentration. English and theater also attract many students. However, getting students to major in math is difficult.

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