Planning a graduate seminar

This spring, I’m teaching a graduate seminar for the first time in four years. At its height, it had 17 people enrolled, although it’s settled down in 14. Given that I’m also teaching an upper-division undergrad class with 24 people, and I need to get more research done than I did last semester, I spent some time over winter break considering a) what work I was going to require of my students and b) what grading that was going to require of me.

As part of this, I did a quick Google search for the syllabi I could find for graduate seminars in geography. Most classes and their syllabi have disappeared into the classroom management system void, but I still found about a dozen from the past couple of years that I could model. I wanted to get a sense of what was required and how it was weighted. Without giving away courses, institutions, or instructors, here are the models I found:

  1. Participation: 30%
    Lead two discussions: 30%
    Essay (2500-3000 words, based on at least five readings): 40%
  2. Participation
    Evaluation of others (this is in my notes, I’m not sure what it means)
    Three 2-3 page reviews of supplemental materials
    “Review-and-agenda” paper of 15-25 double-spaced pages with 20 references
    Progress reports on the paper
    15-minute class presentation on the paper
  3. Participation: 25%
    Lead discussion: 25%
    Term paper (5000 words): 50%
  4. Participation: 40%
    Weekly QAQC paper (quotation, argument, question, connection): 30%
    Essay (10 pages): 30%
  5. Participation: 20%
    Two exegises: 20%
    Lead two discussions: 20%
    Either one or two papers, 20-24 double-spaced pages total: 40%
  6. Participation: 50%
    Exhibit: 15%
    Term paper: 35%
  7. Participation: 20%
    Presentation/facilitation: 10%
    Four outlines, four reaction papers: 20%
    Term paper (4000-5000 words), including peer review: 50%
  8. Participation: 20%
    Term paper (12-15 pages)
    10-15 minute presentation
  9. Six reaction papers: 33%
    Term paper (6000 words or 22 double-spaced pages): 66%
  10. Participation: 15%
    Weekly reaction paper and leading two discussions: 20%
    Paper proposal: 5%
    Term paper (6000 words): 50%
    15-minute presentation: 10%
  11. Participation: 25%
    Lead discussion: 10%
    Weekly reaction paper: 20%
    Paper proposal: 5%
    Term paper (15-25 pages): 30%
    10-minute presentation: 10%

Some thoughts:

  • Wow, is that a lot of variation in how much participation counts.
  • I thought weekly reaction papers were de rigueur, but only about a third of these classes require them. Is that to save on grading?
  • There’s also a lot of variation in length of the term papers, and in how structured their assignments are.

What I came up with based on a combination of these and my desire to keep the volume of grading under control so I could do it in a timely fashion was this:
Participation: 15% (self-assessed)
Weekly reaction paper: 25% (started off in the QAQC format, but now is more open)
Lead discussion once in a team of two: 10% (many grad students have never led a class discussion, so I thought partnering up would help)
10-minute presentation on a book not on the syllabus: 10% (that way we get to hear about a lot of different books that are out there while primarily reading articles)
Short term paper 1: case study of an activist organization or issue: 20% (to apply theories from class to a real-life case, but also to understand that “mobility justice” predates academia)
Short term paper 2: review-and-agenda paper: 20% (to identify what literature is most useful for thesis/paper projects)

How does this compare to your recent graduate seminars, either as a teacher or a student?

Taking student evaluations into account

After writing about some of the new things I tried last semester, I thought I’d wait to write about the rest until student evaluations had come back and I could see how it went. They have come back, and they were pretty good!

I know that there are many, many problems with student evaluations, including a growing list of studies on how they are biased against women and against people of color, especially for junior faculty. There’s a campus-level committee at my university working to come up with some other way of evaluating teaching, and I’ll be interested to see what they recommend. (For the record, classroom observations are not any better unless they’re done by a trained professional, IMHO. Biases exist at all levels of seniority.)

But I’m going to be honest: I usually get good evaluations, and so I don’t mind the process as much as many people. (In fact, I had strong enough evaluations my first three years at my R1 institution that my third-year review letter warned me I might be spending too much time on teaching–but that’s for another post.) So that’s a caveat to keep in mind.

I always choose specific questions to go on the evaluation form that I really want to hear about, and I always read the free-form comments on the back. And I always make changes based on the specific things that students suggest. I’ve worked to more closely integrate the textbook with lecture (without too much overlap between the two), I’ve changed the nature and number of assignments, I’ve kept some experiments that worked really well, like a weekly essay question instead of exams, and I’ve tried to do a better job of explaining how the assignments relate to the lecture and textbook.

For the team-taught class I wrote about before, the main feedback about the format was that the students liked it: they thought each instructor had something to contribute and that the class worked better because we could each share our different perspectives. We did joke a few times in class about the differences between our viewpoints, so I’m pleased that was seen as a positive. That’s great news, and makes me want to consider more team-teaching opportunities in the future.

They also said we could have been a little quicker with getting grades back, which was a very polite way to put a totally fair criticism. I’m really trying to work on that one this semester, because it’s a chronic problem of mine. Always room for improvement!