I Won’t Mess with Your Course if You Don’t Mess with Mine

There’s a tacit rule that most college teachers abide by: I won’t mess with your course if you agree not to mess with mine. Gerald Graff observes and asks, “This rules suits the teacher, but how well does it serve students?” (p. 155)

In his article (referenced below) Graff asserts that we know very little about each other’s courses. He’s not writing so much about the instructional strategies we use (although we don’t know much about those either), but about what we teach, including those policies and practices that govern conduct in the classroom and set learning parameters for students. He’s coined a term for the way we teach in self-isolated classrooms: “courseocentricism,” which he defines as a “state of mind that insulates us as teachers from the consequences of the curricular system in which we work.” (p. 157) Elsewhere he calls it a tunnel vision that makes us oblivious to the fact that teachers conduct courses within a department, sometimes even the same course, very differently.

He points out the irony of this instructional isolation: “At a time when our online technologies make amazing new forms of connectivity possible, and when much of our cutting-edge academic research insists on the inherently social and collaborative nature of intellectual work, we still think of teaching in ways that are narrowly private and individualistic, as a practice naturally enacted behind classroom walls that allows us to tune out the classroom next door or in the next building.” (p. 157)

But is this diversity of approach a problem? Graff sees it as a large issue for students. “With courseocentric logic, we assume that if we all teach our courses conscientiously, each making sure that his or her demands are spelled out as clearly and transparently as possible, then our students will make coherent sense of our diverse perspectives. They will put it all together for themselves even if we do not or cannot.” (p. 158) He finishes the argument by pointing out that just because courses are individually coherent, that does not guarantee coherence among a collection of them.

Almost every teacher is confronted with evidence that this diversity of approaches confounds students. When assigned to write a paper, they ask things such as whether they should write in the first person and whether they should summarize the author’s idea or share their own opinions. Across a variety of courses they have learned that teachers want different things and that part of the education game involves figuring out what the teacher wants.

Graff asserts that the vast majority of students don’t construct anything like a coherent wholeness out of their various course experiences. Rather, “taking courses for these students becomes a process of serially giving teachers whatever they seem to want—assuming the students can figure out what it is—jumping through hoops takes the place of deep socialization into an intellectual community.” (p. 159)

And what does Graff propose as a solution to courseocentricism? “I am a believer in outcomes assessment,” which he sees as the only trend that seriously challenges current course isolation and the only trend “with the potential to make the college intellectual world transparent and accessible to all undergraduates.” (p. 160)

He admits that faculty have not wholeheartedly endorsed outcomes assessment and that some very bad models of assessment exist, but he doesn’t believe those models should give college assessment a bad name. He thinks the best assessment criteria are few, simple, and well-focused. He offers an example of a single question that could be asked: “Are students able to summarize a central assumption or claim in their major discipline and respond to it articulately in writing?” (p. 163)

This is one of those articles that begs to be discussed. Graff isn’t proposing that teachers develop lesson plans that must be submitted for approval to some central authority. He isn’t arguing that courses must share the same requirements for students. But he maintains we cannot remain as ignorant as we are of each other’s teaching and courses.

Reference: Graff, G. (2009). Why assessment? Pedagogy, 10 (1), 153-165.

Excerpted from “Courseocentricism: New Word, New Idea.” The Teaching Professor, 24.9 (2010), 4-5.