Teaching Tuesday: Without a Syllabus

Over the last few years, I’ve started to do some work to flip my classroom in both my introductory level and mid-level courses. I’ve also discovered that students have come to expect a certain amount of classroom inversion at my institution. What I used to have to explain and justify for students has now become expected. In general, I think this is a good trend in education.

This morning, I meet with a group of 10 students who have signed up for a one-credit course that will focus on Montgomery Hall. Montgomery Hall is among the older buildings on campus having once served as the university commons, then as the library, before becoming the deanery for Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School, and building filled with storage and small departments. Over the years, the building’s prime spot on the main road through campus and its awkward orientation toward the rest of campus and use of Tudor style architecture rather than the prevailing College Gothic has made it vulnerable to more ambitious campus planners. As a result, the building is slated for demolition this year. 

While this is bad for the building, it is good for students, because it means that once again, we have a building that we can explore as a way to understand architecture, the history of campus, and the complex ways that we might memorialize these buildings and understand how campuses change.

Two years ago, I ran a similar class focused on two now-demolished buildings associated with Wesley College on the campus of UND. In the case of this class, I very much set the agenda and enlisted students as co-researchers who helped me document the building and the objects left behind at abandonment. Over the course of the class, however, students began to get their own ideas and set their own agendas. By the end of the class, the data that I collected was far less interesting than the work of the students themselves. The optimist in me imagined that my research established a framework for the students to explore their own interests, but part of me wondered how the students might do if I hadn’t framed so much of their early interaction with the building.

So, this semester, I’m going to leave the class more open ended. For example, I’m not going to have a syllabus. I’m also not going to tell the students what I want them to do. Instead, I’m going to talk about ways to KNOW a building in general, munch on donuts, and listen to how they think about campus, campus-changes, and commemorating or recognizing the history of campus over time. In the past, I’ve been interested in the tensions between campus as a dynamic place and campus as a place saturated with history and traditions. As recent controversies surrounding the Silent Sam statue on UNC’s campus, the renaming of buildings at Brown, Calhoun College at Yale, and others across the U.S. often marks the intersection between broadly progressive values and the role that college campuses play as mnemonic landscapes for generations of alumni and students.

Framing the class at this very intersection – between formal requirements of a syllabus and the less structured experiences and attitude of students toward their built environment – might set up new ways of thinking about campus buildings and changes over time. 

The class starts now, so we’ll see.   

Short Writing: A Book Cover, a Class Description, and a Random Thought

This week, I’m grinding away on a conference paper that I have to give next week. I’m also trying to wrap up a few odds and ends as the end of the semester and the holiday conference season approaches. These little odds and ends, tend to be short writing projects mostly (aside from the usual administrative trivia that goes along with publishing, editing North Dakota Quarterly, serving as my department’s director of graduate studies, and being a generally good doobie around campus.

Here are two short writing projects and some editorializing:

First, I’m trying to teach a little 1-credit class on Montgomery Hall. The course will be called Making Montgomery Hall. Here’s the blurb:

Making Montgomery Hall is a 1-credit class focusing on the now-abandoned building on the UND Campus. This will be the last class held in one of the oldest standing buildings on campus before it is demolished next year.

This class will support a wide range of engagements with the building from archival work, to the study of archaeology, material culture, campus history, and architecture. The class will also encourage students to consider opportunities for creative approaches to an abandoned building on campus. The goal of the class is to think together about how we remember, preserve, and mark campus history while simultaneously celebrating innovation, progress, and change.

NOTE: Because we have to get special access to this building, we do not have a scheduled meeting time. Once students enroll in the class, we’ll work out a meeting time or times that work for everyone.

Second, I’m putting the final touches on Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays which is due to drop on December 1. One the hardest things to do (and one of the things that I never feel very good about) is writing the back cover description of the book. I think this one is pretty decent:

Please, you gotta help me. I’ve nuked the university.

Failing Gloriously and Other Essays documents Shawn Graham’s odyssey through the digital humanities and digital archaeology against the backdrop of the 21st-century university. At turns hilarious, depressing, and inspiring, Graham’s book presents a contemporary take on the academic memoir, but rather than celebrating the victories, he reflects on the failures and considers their impact on his intellectual and professional development. These aren’t heroic tales of overcoming odds or paeans to failure as evidence for a macho willingness to take risks. They’re honest lessons laced with a genuine humility that encourages us to think about making it safer for ourselves and others to fail.

A foreword from Eric Kansa and an afterword by Neha Gupta engage the lessons of Failing Gloriously and consider the role of failure in digital archaeology, the humanities, and social sciences.

Here’s the cover:

Failing Gloriously Cover Draft 2 01

Finally, I’ve been thinking a bit about some of the recent vogue for “short work week” movements and the persistent buzz about work-life balance. A recent report from Microsoft Japan suggested that a four-day week improved productivity by 40%. While not doubting Microsoft’s research based on anything substantial, I often wonder how much the miracle of the short work week rests on the years of long work weeks that helped employees discover the efficiencies, processes, and practices that made shorter work weeks possible. In other words, short work weeks are great for employees who focus on well-established processes (which make measuring productivity meaningful) and perhaps those who do work in a highly modular way. They probably are not as ideal for folks whose work is more episodic, unpredictable, and irregular.