Don’t Teach Classes. Craft Courses.

A “class” is a physical space—static, hence indifferent to the rhythm of pedagogy. A course, however, is a movement—a choreography of knowledge, understanding, revelation, and affect. A course is less a map of a subject than a particular tour through a domain.

Daniel Coffeen
Sep 28 · 8 min read

Teaching is an Event (Not Solely an Indexing of Knowledge)

I love the word “course” in a pedagogic sense. If done well, a course is precisely that: a prescribed movement through a field, a veritable choreography of understanding.

Despite whatever intentions a teacher may have, there is no such thing as teaching a subject per se. You’re always teaching this movement through these texts and ideas—a rhythm of revelation, attention, explication, and affect as you begin here, focus on such and such a passage, then on that one, go on a diatribe, spend hours on one sentence then eight minutes on the rest of the book, a relevant joke or two, wind back to an earlier idea, bring in different fodder from the world — other books, films, experiences—and then, boom!, plant your landing at the end.

A course is less a map than a tour, a movement through a field.

This is one reason many teachers fail: they teach a class—an anonymous space—not a course, which is a movement. Note the indefinite article: a course is not the definitive movement but a movement—a particularity, a perspective, this way of moving through the material in this mode of pedagogy (that is, how often you repeat yourself; when you allow or invite questions; when to give exercises, and which, for students to do on their own; etc).

Most teachers of course think of themselves as master of a subject and it’s their job to hand students a map of this territory. But teaching is an event, a particular framing and flow—not just the conveyance of information. I believe if more teachers saw themselves as tour guides rather than cartographers, everyone would be happier and perhaps, just perhaps, a little bit wiser.

Crafting a Course, or Teacher as DJ

I’ve always found this act of crafting a course downright exhilarating. Sure, I love being in a classroom, turning people on to the books and ideas that turn me on. There’s nothing like that lively feedback loop of energy as students light up (or not). It’s often delirious. But it’s the act of creating the course that really gets me going.

> Coming up with a subject in the first place. This is usually obvious or, alas, not up to you such as when teaching “Nietzsche” or “differential calculus” (but not even these are givens; for example, some people’s courses on Nietzsche might include reading Schopenhauer). I’ve had the great luxury of being free to teach some rather idiosyncratic courses of my own creation over the years; that is, subjects that do not come readymade but which I define in the very course of the course. Some of my course titles over the years include “Seeing Seeing,” “Joy & Complexity,” “Style,” “Bring on the Strange.”

Defining a subject to teach is tricky, of course. My less institutional courses were inspired by what I was teaching myself at the time. I used the course as a way to teach myself as I taught the class (I taught myself about film and image this way). The benefit of this is that the event of teaching becomes so alive as we’re all learning together. No doubt, this is an inevitable outcome of teaching anything: every time I teach things I know well, I discover new things. But there’s something special about teaching a subject you’re not a “master” of. The experience is more fraught which throws you, as teacher, back on yourself: you can’t just tune out and regurgitate what you already know. I think this can often serve students well as they witness the experience of learning as much as they experience it themselves.

> Finding the right texts—not just the books but the paragraphs, sentences, words. Once I have the subject more or less in my sights, I scan my bookshelves, pulling those that seem apropos, and surround myself with them: a visible and invisible immersion. (I find book spines a poignant metonymy; just seeing them triggers a whole cosmos of thought and possibility.) Then I begin flipping around as I try to find the right selections to include—some I just know I’ll use; some selections happen to be my favorites so I have to include some of those; and some are new(er) to me as we’re all always changing so chapters I’ve ignored in the past might suddenly make their way in. There’s of course no such thing as reading everything in a field; a syllabus is already and inherently an argument about the subject.

The “right” texts, of course, turns on who the audience is. If it’s an intro course for, say, professionals taking night classes, assigning whole chapters of Bergson’s Matter and Memory is at once cruel and stupid as I’ll most likely lose my audience—even if the subject seems to demand my teaching Matter and Memory. Which is just to say, don’t let the subject alone determine which texts; heed the event of the course. Heed your audience and circumstances.

> Finessing the flow— the flow of how an idea or passage leads to another and then to another until there’s some kind of emergent sense. But the flow cannot be made of ideas alone. A course must consider the flow of time and attention. After all, a course is not an ideal exposition of a subject—that’s the goal of a text book. A course is an event on people’s schedules, meeting this often in this space for this long. So you have to consider the time and pace of understanding for both you and your students—perhaps short chapters one week followed by a whole book the next. Too many whole books and the course may very well go off the tracks.

This calculus of ideas, time, and attention is a critical component of a course that is too often overlooked. A course is a kind of party—and the teacher, its dj. You have to feel that groove and know what to play when and at what speed.

> Heeding your audience. So much of a course depends on the situation—who your students are, how they’ve come to be in your class, and their (and your) appetite for a certain kind of experience. Is this course required for everyone? Just for majors? Is it an upper level elective? A grad seminar? Is this night school at a community college where your students have most likely been working all day? How much do the students already know coming into the class (here, “class” is the proper word)? Which is all to say, crafting a course is a rhetorical endeavor: you have to heed your audience. For instance, when I taught “Joy and Complexity” as a seminar to visual art MFAs it was different than when I taught it as an upper level elective in rhetoric to Berkeley undergrads—a few different texts, different exercises, different speeds, different asks of students at different stages of their lives. Artists look for gestures that sync with making art; academic undergrads, for the finer points of a text about which they can write.

A Course Syllabus Is Already Thinking

This act of crafting a course is a mode of argumentative writing. It’s a tour of a domain—look at this, then that, then that. The movement from here to there is an argument, carving a particular path within a greater field of knowledge and understanding.

But, as we all know, tours can be lazy, offering nothing but cliché. Tourists get a checklist—the Eiffel Tower, check; Catacombs, check; Champs-Élysées, check. Many academic courses do precisely this: Nietzsche’s “Birth of Tragedy” and the Dionysian, check; some ressentiment, check; and there, on your left, you’ll see Zarathustra. Check.

And then there are those super cool tours—the ones where you see things you’ve never heard of, a side of a city or trails you’d never even know existed without this tour guide. That’s the teacher you want to be! You want to show your students a side of a subject, book, idea that they have never even imagined existed—and which, hopefully, gets them riled up. But that’s not something you, as a teacher, can control. Some people are not going to like your tour and that’s ok as it’s out of your control. But you do always have the ability to bring something novel to them. That’s all anyone can ask. That’s plenty.

This movement of your course—your tour of this domain—is already an argument. Just by assigning these texts in this order, you’ve carved a space through the domain of your subject. This is why I love crafting a syllabus so much: it is an act of thinking. But it’s not just thinking as a personal act, however delightful that may be. It’s crafting an experience qua argument for a certain set of people.

So crafting a syllabus is an act of thinking with ghosts, with traces of people you’ve yet to meet—a kind of séance. But rather than conjuring the dead, you’re conjuring the living.

Teaching Is Not the Conveyance of Information. It Creates the Conditions of Personal Change.

Which is all to say, teaching is not the indifferent, or even passionate, conveyance of knowledge. That’s what encyclopedias and textbooks are. To teach is not just to open up a hatch in your students and pour the information in. Learning, after all, is not quantitative. And teaching is not arithmetic: student + new information.

Our job as teachers is not to be gatekeepers of a domain, ensuring we’ve covered all the essential aspects. We are not bureaucrats of whatever discipline. We are artists and rhetoricians, asking our audience to see the world anew, persuading them that there are other ways of going. Our job is to create an event in which our students can be reborn — even if that’s uncomfortable for them. But, if done well, this discomfort gives way to elation: the elation of being born anew.

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Daniel Coffeen

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Former Berkeley Rhetoric prof turned…what? Anatha Comms. Wrote this, too:

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors