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Choosing courses

Topics/tags: Grinnell, autobiographical

This past week, during preregistration, I had one of those meetings with an advisee that faculty both look forward to and dread. It started something like this.

I’m done with my CS major. That means that I can take almost anything next semester. I know that I have the skills to teach myself many things. What classes should I take?

They also asked me about faculty members who they should take courses from. That’s something I try to avoid discussing with my students. I have a slew of wonderful colleagues, so it’s hard to prioritize any particular person. I also know that different students react differently to the same faculty member; one student’s most influential faculty member can be another student’s regretted class. But I also acknowledge that there’s a small cadre of faculty who regularly appear in students’ comments that this person made a huge positive difference in my life. So I probably mentioned a few potential courses, prefacing them with My students tell me that …

We identified far too many courses for the student to consider and then narrowed them to a more reasonable set. Since it’s a student I trust, I left all of the courses we’d talked about as approved so that they could make a change after sleeping on it and talking to friends [1].

Reading through the course list with the student got me thinking: What courses would I take if I had the time to do so? That’s not a completely hypothetical question. I’m on leave in the spring and could sit in on a course or two. I’ve certainly done so in the past. And, even if I’m not going to sit in on courses, it’s nice to think about what courses I might take.

Like my student, I’ve learned how to learn. But I’ve also learned that I learn better in an environment in which learning is guided and structured by someone who better understands the material, and in an environment in which I learn from a variety of people around me. That is, small classes are better for me.

On the one hand, I realize that almost any course would likely be valuable for me to take. As I noted, I have excellent colleagues. And, as we tell our students, it’s good to explore a bit beyond your comfort zone. Now, it would often be good to have prerequisites. For example, I wouldn’t take a 400-level course in a foreign language. Nonetheless, I could certainly try a wide variety of topics. My colleagues have also been known to waive prerequisites when appropriate.

I’ve been fortunate to take a lot of courses with colleagues I respect. I’ve attended full semesters of Ira Strauber’s Constitutional Law [2], Erik Simpson’s Lighting the Page [3], Vida Praitis’ Advanced Genetics, Tom Moore’s Applied Statistics, Bio 251 [4], Susan Strauber’s Introduction to Art History, Jeremy Chen’s Introduction to the Studio and Sculpture, and perhaps one or two others that I’ve forgotten. I’ve been able to attend part of a semester of Jenny Anger’s Art Since 1945 and Andrew Kaufman’s Digital Art. I’ve taken Bowling from Brian Jaworski and Tennis from Andy Hamilton.

Of course, learning from colleagues goes beyond their courses. I’ve watched a wide variety of colleagues guest teach in my section of TEC 154. I’ve attended workshops led by Elizabeth Dobbs ( Dr. Syntax), Brad Bateman (Tutorial), Karla Erickson (Mid-Career Faculty), Andi Tracy and Jen Jacobsen (Student Wellness), and many, many more. I’ve attended lectures by a host of colleagues. I even have a box set of lectures on DVD by Tyler Roberts buried somewhere in my lab. The list goes on and on. But there’s always the opportunity to learn more.

I’m sorry that I missed the opportunity to sit in on one of V. Brown’s classes. I hear that she was the pinnacle of organization. I’ll never be that, but it would be good to see someone who is. I had hoped to take Drawing and Ceramics from Jill Schrift. I guess that will never happen. I certainly had fun talking to her about both courses.

I guess that’s enough with memories of times passed [5]. Let’s look at next semester’s courses. As I said, there’s likely a benefit to taking almost any course. But I’m going to focus on some that seem most interesting at the present. I also realize that I might choose a different set of courses on a different day.

The most obvious choice is Ralph Savarese’s Craft of Creative Nonfiction. Why? Well, I write a lot of nonfiction. I have the conceit that my work is creative. But I also know that I have lots of room for improvement. Ralph would be a no-bullshit instructor. I’m surprised to see that there are open slots in the course. But it’s at 8:00 a.m., and, well, students don’t seem to like 8:00 a.m. courses. It seems hard to be creative at that time of day.

Even though I write a lot, I know that Ralph’s class would be challenging. As I’ve said before, I write workman-like prose; while I may have interesting ideas [6] and have developed an authorial voice of sorts, my writing lacks many of the characteristics I associate with creative nonfiction, particularly attention to language, sound, and rhythm. I don’t necessarily think about those issues when I’m reading, and I certainly don’t pay close enough attention to them when I’m writing.

While we’re on the topic of creative writing courses, Dean Bakopoulos’ writing seminar on screenwriting [7] would certainly push me in new directions. I don’t have a particular interest in screenwriting, but the course would certainly help me reflect on language use and listening more carefully to others. Plus, I think it would be a blast to take a course from Dean. Why are there open slots in this course?

I’d love to take Justin Thomas’ Digital Media Design, primarily because I’m interested in the intersection between technology and the arts, but also because I know that Justin would be fun to have a class from. I’m surprised to see that there’s room in that course, too.

I’d love to participate in Karla Erickson’s Research on Robots. I think I do fairly well at considering the broader implications of technology. But thinking about modern technological issues in the context of a sociology seminar would certainly expand my perspectives. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take that course and Ralph’s, because they meet at the same time. And, like Ralph’s class, it has some room.

On that note, I should probably consider taking Jennifer Dobe’s Ethical Theory. It’s an opportunity for me to get more formal training in those issues so that I can better apply them to my own field. And it also has room. Why is that my interest varies so much from that of Grinnell students?

Kathy Kamp and Lesley Wright’s Designing Museum Displays sounds like a ton of fun and a chance to expand my thinking in new ways. I’d enjoy thinking about displays for the HSSC. It would also be nice to think more about the displays on Noyce 3rd. Unfortunately, this course would be the hardest to take of those I’ve listed, as it is significantly over-enrolled.

Johanna Meehan’s Reading Arendt would be awesome, but also awesomely challenging. I’m reasonably intelligent, but I sometimes struggle with deep philosophy. Arendt’s philosophy is really important and Johanna is brilliant. Why does this course have room?

Returning closer to home, I’d like to sit in on Jerod Weinman’s Artificial Intelligence. As I’ve mentioned recently, AI has become a core CS discipline. It’s certainly much different than the AI course I took in 1986 or so, when all I could think was All these algorithms appear to be exponential. I also realize that although AI is close to my field, the course would require a lot of my time.

Staying within the Science division, I should also consider taking one of the sections of Introduction to Psychology. It was mom’s field, after all. And while I studied some psychology in my social studies core course at UofC [8], there’s always the opportunity to take more.

I’ve mentioned Katya and Leslie’s Racing Genetics in a previous musing. It would be interesting to see the two of them teaching together. I also learn something new from each of them whenever we talk. But that course is also over-full.

One of my regrets from my undergraduate days is that I never tried to get into Bevington’s Shakespeare. But whenever I had the opportunity to enroll early, I prioritized getting into one of Gerald Mast’s film classes. I don’t regret that decision, but I should have found a way to try to take Bevington, too. Anyway, I hear that taking one of John Garrison’s Shakespeare courses would be a reasonable substitute. I see that he and Kelly Maynard are teaching Shakespeare in the Mediterranean. That would be cool, particularly since John tells me that it has a study abroad component. I know that I can’t get into that course because it has an application process and it’s only for first-year students. Instead, I’ll add courses from Kelly and John to my long-term plans.

Speaking of long-term plans, I should find a way to sit in on Sarah Purcell’s Digital History. I’d love to see Sarah’s take on the digital humanities. I’d also like to take a linguistics course from Cynthia Hansen or Angelo Mercado.

Mark Laver’s Jazz Traditions would be a good experience. I enjoy jazz, but I don’t have deep enough knowledge to really understand what I’m listening to.

Jenny Anger is teaching Art Since 1945 again. I enjoyed the parts of that course I could attend and would like the chance to continue learning more about the matter. I find that the more I learn about art, the better it informs whatever practice I have the time for. It also heightens my enjoyment of the museums I visit.

I don’t know Alexander Marcus. But I think it would be interesting to sit in on his special topic course on Israel and Palestine. I have some knowledge about the situation, but that knowledge is not deep enough. I have opinions, but I’d like them to be better-informed opinions.

I see that Georgeanna Robinson is teaching her How Colleges Work special topic course again. I had hoped to sit in on that course last year. I’d like to say maybe this year, but it’s at the same time as way too many other courses I’d like to sit in on. Oh well, at least I have the readings. I was surprised that the enrollment in this course was so low. Since Georgeanna is downstairs, I heard from her that there was a delay in getting it listed, so it didn’t appear until midway through preregistration. I hope it still gets offered. Georgeanna tells me that while it’s useful for all students, it’s particularly useful for first-gen and first-year students, who benefit from learning more about the structure of the institution.

I love David Campbell’s writing. And his lecture in the Liberal Arts and Vocation series was wonderful [9]. When we talk, I’m always impressed by his depth of knowledge and his thoughtfulness. So I should consider sitting in on Nations and the Global Environment. I also think mom tried to take that class when she moved to town. But right now, that course is significantly over-enrolled.

What about my student’s suggestion of taking something from a life-changing faculty member? I’ll admit that my experience will likely be different than that of my students. And I don’t want to single out a particular faculty member, so I’ll just single out a department. When I think about the courses that my students find transformational, I’d say that Sociology is the department they mention most frequently. So I’ll add take a Sociology course to my wish list.

Okay, I’ve now listed about four semesters worth of classes, if not more. And I know that I’ve missed a huge number of other potential courses that I’d love taking. Maybe it’s time to retire and go back to school.

Postscript: Near the beginning of this musing, I noted that my list would normally change if I wrote it at a different time. And I was right. Even though I’d been thinking about this issue for a few days, sleeping on it another night revealed even more courses I’d like to take. For example, it would be nice to take a core course in Education [10] so that I had firmer grounding in the work that I do. It would also be nice to take an introductory Chemistry course so that I could have some idea what middle son does. When I talk to Eldest Son, I regularly find that I’m reminded that further background in Economics would help me better understand the world. I would also benefit from taking at least one course in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies [11]. However, they don’t allow seniors to pre-register for the intro course so I expect that I couldn’t get in easily.

What else? Since Monessa Cummins is on leave this semester, I neglected to list one of her courses. But if she could put up with me, I’d like to sit in on one of her courses [12].

In terms of particular courses, I’d like to sit in on Joe Mileti’s Combinatorics & Number Theory. While I was a math major as an undergrad, and likely know much of the material, doing math makes me happy. Certainly, the one day a week I sat in on Titus Klinge’s Automata, Formal Languages, and Computational Complexity reminded me of how much I enjoy problem-solving in formal systems; I expect that Joe’s course would give me the same feeling. The last time I took number theory was in a summer math camp at the University of Chicago. I also think that I’d appreciate Joe’s style more than that of Raghavan Narasimhan; I certainly wouldn’t expect Joe to fill twenty-seven chalkboards in an hour-long class [14].

That reminds me. I should probably muse about the faculty and courses who had the most powerful influence on me as a student. But that’s a topic for another musing.

What else? I’d mentioned Peter-Michael Osera’s HCI and Programming in an earlier musing. That’s a topic I’d like to think more about. However, I’d prefer it in the context of a small seminar, rather than the larger class it seems to have become [15].

I have no idea whether or not Anne Harris will ever teach a course at Grinnell. I hope she will. And if she does, I hope to have the opportunity to attend at least some of it.

When I add these courses, I’m now up to five full-time semesters or more of courses to take. How do students choose? And why do some tell me that they can’t find anything of interest?

[1] It looks like they left the list as is.

[2] I was suffering from hypersomnia that semester. I’m glad that Ira was willing to put up with it.

[3] That’s Erik’s course on digital humanities and literature.

[4] Why can’t I remember who taught Bio 251?

[5] Or is that times past? Or perhaps just the past.

[6] Or so I hope.

[7] Since it’s about writing for TV, would that be smallscreenwriting? And how should I notate that term? Is it small-screenwriting or smallscreen writing or …?

[8] I refuse to use UChicago. It was UofC when I was there, and it will remain UofC in my mind.

[9] All of the lectures in that series were wonderful. But Brad Bateman and Kathleen Skerrett are gone from Grinnell, so I can’t take classes from them.

[10] Most likely, Educational Principles in a Pluralistic Society.

[11] From my interactions with Leah Allen, I feel like I would learn a lot in her section. But it’s likely that I would benefit from anyone’s section.

[12] It’s been way too many years since I took Latin, so I’d probably choose either introductory Latin or one of the courses that does not require knowledge of classical languages.

[14] Maybe it was ninety minutes. I just remember that he looked worn out at the end of each class. Our brains certainly were.

[15] I realize that a class of twenty (or twenty-four) students is, in fact, a small seminar at some institutions. Nonetheless, at Grinnell, it feels more like a large class.

Version 1.0 of 2019-11-18.