Sasha Kurmaz: Untiltled; via  It's Nice That

Come back! Sasha Kurmaz: Untiltled; via It’s Nice That

In the fall I’m teaching my Urban Media Archaeology studio — which focuses on mapping urban media infrastructures — for the fourth time; and my Archives, Libraries + Databases seminar — which examines the histories, politics, and aesthetics of all the systems we’ve developed to filter, classify, store, delete, and facilitate or control access to knowledge (…or information, or data) — for the third time. Both classes have traditionally been well-enrolled, and I’ve consistently received really strong evaluations for both.

But last year my enrollments began to slip. And this fall both classes are at only half-capacity — actually a little under half-capacity. Enrollments have certainly dropped across the board, but mine are especially low. I’ve posted flyers around campus and on our program’s Facebook page to drum up interest; I’ve encouraged former students to pitch the class to their classmates, etc. — to no avail. Given my tendency to blame myself for things that go wrong (which I recognize is a weird form of narcissism), I wondered if perhaps students were avoiding me for some reason. Maybe that teaching award was a fluke.

Why is this a problem? Some friends don’t see this as a cause for concern at all, and they’ve encouraged me to simply enjoy having smaller classes full of dedicated, self-selecting students. Sure, I could do that. But being a former program director, I know that it’s increasingly difficult to justify running elective courses with low enrollment. Plus, I want to make sure that what I’m teaching is relevant to students’ interests. I wouldn’t advocate that we start designing curricula by popular vote (when I asked students for course ideas a few years ago, back in my administrator days, the only recommendations I received were duplicates of the offerings at Adobe Training & Certification) — but I would prefer that my teaching inspire, and be inspired by, students’ interests.

I re-read my evaluations from 2012 to see if there was anything that required my attention. I’ll share the students’ comments below. This might feel grossly gratuitous (it sure does to me) — but it’s helpful for me to keep these comments in mind, because I’ve honestly been wondering if I need to seriously reevaluate my pedagogy and course design. Plus, at some institutions these end-of-semester student comments are part of the public record anyway, so why not share them? Academics “blurb” their publications all the time — why not their teaching?

Here’s what some students had to say about last fall’s Archives class:

  • “Design of the syllabus and readings is a really good mix of theoretical/philosophical foundations and concrete applications which really helped me to engage with the subject matter on different levels — this same theoretical/practical mix was reflected in the assignments and focusing the midterm presentations on an application was a good call in my opinion as it generated a really interesting mix of interests.”
  • “The plethora of resources, examples, explanations, and field trips were extremely helpful in conveying the various weekly topics effectively.”
  • “The readings were broad in their theoretical reach and aesthetic, coming at the subject matter from a diverse range of opinion. Always something exciting to read, and the discussions were (usually) awesome and insightful.”
  • “A great multimodal course, from reading Foucault to reading practical guides to field trips.”
  • “Feedback on my assignments has been detailed, insightful, encouraging and provided speedily, much appreciated!”

And they said some nice stuff about my effectiveness as a teacher:

  • “Shannon is an amazing teacher – she possesses an astounding roster of knowledge and is more than capable of expressing the subject matter at hand.”
  • “This was my first class with Shannon, and it was everything I dreamed it would be. Shannon is capable, highly intellectual and challenges me to push myself and do my best work. I felt that I could ask her anything and get a genuine and thoughtful response. She is an extremely gifted educator who I enjoyed learning with.”
  • “Shannon is definitely the most hardworking professor I know. She strives her students (sic) to do their best work, and encourage their field of interest.”
  • And perhaps one of my all-time favorites: “Shannon is the single best resource on the planet. She is better than Google.” Eat that, Sergey.

And now a few comments from last fall’s Urban Media Archaeology students:

  • “I think that this is one of the classes that I will return to over and over in the future for inspiration and to read and re-read the course materials. I am very pleased with the work I was able to accomplish this semester under Shannon and Rory’s guidance, not to mention that I had a great time!! Thanks for a fantastic semester.”
  • “Best class I’ve taken in the program.”

And here’s what some UMA folks had to say about me:

  • “Thorough. Enthusiastic. Open-minded. Challenging. Up-to-date. Shannon really pushes you to do your best. And you want to do your best because you know that SHE’s doing HER best.”
  • “Shannon is one of the best teachers I have ever had. Her manner of teaching and her breadth of knowledge are very inspiring.”
  • “Shannon loves to teach and her enthusiasm is infectious. The organization of UMA’s class website, blog, and syllabus is unparalleled and to be honest, no other class in the program even comes close to the level of organization available in this course. Her class is very well-designed. Shannon gave consistent, constructive, and careful feedback on everything we submitted from proposals, to blog posts, to email inquiries. Careful attention was paid to each student. Shannon is challenging and incredibly knowledgeable. I did not want to miss a class. She is an effective lecturer and sets a high academic standard. In addition, Shannon’s personal work as a scholar is inspiring and I feel lucky to have had the chance to work with her.”
  • “Shannon is exceptional. Truly a pedagogical force in the program.”

Brings a tear to my eye. It’s truly inspiring and humbling to know that these students are able to have such meaningful experiences in my classes.

So, maybe I should take comfort in the knowledge that I’m doing an okay job as a teacher. And that my classes are okay. Yes, of course there are always things I can work on (and I’m always making tweaks and updates, asking for feedback, and self-critiquing) — but there doesn’t seem to be anything so egregiously bad that would explain a student exodus.

I spoke with the School of Media Studies’ fantastic student advisor to see if she could offer any insight into my enrollment slide, or advice regarding what I could do about it. She indicated that, particularly in recent semesters, nearly all students who ask her for course recommendations are looking for practical skills and applicable knowledge. This should come as no surprise. They want things that are easily translatable to a job. (I’ve observed another trend running “perpendicular” to the instrumentalist drive: I also find that the more “theoretically inclined” students are drawn to “Dude Theory” classes because, well, they just feel really “academic.”)

Now of course I’m a strong proponent of education that serves purposes other than “practical” training (which is often equated with vocational training). In fact, when I teach our Intro to Grad Studies class, I always like to encourage students to design an education for themselves that enriches their full identities — as human beings who, yes, must work and make a living, but who also can’t be reduced to homo faber or homo economicus. (Our fabulous advisor, Alex, also tries to help students expand their understanding of what constitutes a “skill,” a she encourages them to practice translating their various critical and creative capacities into resume-appropriate skills that a prospective employer might understand and valorize.) But still, given the financial woes that many institutions are suffering, the national and global employment and economic crises, and widespread doubt over the value of a college degree, I can understand why students, parents, employers, etc., would want college teachers to be able to answer the “so what can you do with this?” question.

When I teach my classes I sometimes interject brief asides that address how our discussion topics or exercises might have relevance or utility in various fields of work or “everyday life” scenarios. But maybe I need to do a better job of explaining that applicability to prospective students. So, I’ll try to do that. In my next post I’ll list some of the “applicable critical skills” and “practical skills” that students can develop in my classes.

Maybe this little “marketing” effort will have no effect. Maybe my enrollment numbers will remain static. Maybe students just aren’t interested in buying what I’m selling anymore. Maybe I really do need to revamp my course offerings. But it wouldn’t hurt to try, first, to talk their language, and more directly explain “what’s in it for them.”

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