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Charting New Courses To Make Subjects Click

Georgetown University Professor Linda Wetzel discusses philosopher Bertrand Russell using the television show
Georgetown University Professor Linda Wetzel discusses philosopher Bertrand Russell using the television show "Star Trek" as a framework. "The show can display the philosophy, doing the job for you in a way that a thousand words can't," she said. (By Bill O'leary -- The Washington Post)

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By Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 8, 2007

The intense exchange among students in Room 394 of Georgetown University's Walsh building last week was of Descartes, how humans know they exist and whether they are really nothing more than brains resting in vats. It was standard fare for a course in philosophy.

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But to prepare for the session, Prof. Linda Wetzel did something unorthodox. She aired an episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" -- the one in which Capt. Jean-Luc Picard finds himself living an alternate life on a non-Federation planet. And during the discussion, Wetzel referred to "data" not as a collection of facts but as "Data, our favorite android," a character in the TV show.

This is Phil-180, also known as "Philosophy & Star Trek."

"It's got a better title than 'Metaphysics, Metaphysics and More Metaphysics,' " Wetzel joked. "But seriously, the show can display the philosophy, doing the job for you in a way that a thousand words can't."

Courses such as the one Wetzel designed, which frequently attract students because they are unconventional, engage students in the learning process better than traditionally conceived classes, educators say. But, they add, there just aren't anywhere near enough of them.

"I think some courses are being designed better today, but to put that in context, that means we've moved from 10 percent to maybe 25 percent," said L. Dee Fink, an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma and an instructional development expert. "There's still a massive percentage of poorly designed courses."

Creating a great course takes thought, ingenuity and skill: activities that spark different kinds of thinking and not just memorization; teachers who care about the subject and interact well with students; and teachers who have a good system of assessment.

Still, it is not a science.

"The act of putting together a coherent, interesting, up-to-date and relevant course is something that cannot be reduced to an algorithm," said Robert Halliday, assistant vice president for academic affairs at Utica College in New York. "Some faculty are more skilled at it than others."

Effective courses cross over two or more disciplines, a recognition that the tidy lines between disciplines that dominated teaching in the past have been wiped away by modern science and thinking, educators say. Some are created to appeal to non-majors of a particular subject, recognition that undergraduates should be exposed to different ideas. Someone majoring in English does not need the same level of detail for a physics course as someone majoring in the subject.

Most often, the course is initiated by professors, but inspiration can come from other sources. At Catholic University, some English majors who enjoyed a "Rock and Poetry" course led by Ernie Suarez asked him to develop a course on William Faulkner, and he obliged. At Trinity Washington University, students wanted a course on the films of Spike Lee, and they got one.

Still, too many courses are drawn up in the traditional mold, without opportunities for student engagement. Critics say some professors don't know how to design a course, don't want to learn a better way and, in the name of academic freedom, are not forced to do so by their institutions. Individual courses sometimes face a rigorous approval process, but many institutions do not pay enough attention to whether their collections of courses are effectively preparing students for the complicated world they will inherit, educators say.


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