Over the past year or two, then, I have worked hard on thinking about how to frame my courses, both on the syllabus and in the opening weeks of the semester, in ways that should help students see how the course will provide them with answers to interesting questions, or will offer them the opportunity to improve their lives in some substantive ways. I don't think it's enough anymore--if it ever was--to say to students: "I have some important stuff here on offer, you can take my word for it; now sit down and start learning." To foster the kind of intrinsic motivation that will lead to deeper learning, we have to give students more help than that in understanding why our courses matter in their lives.
So I thought I would post here the two paragraphs in my course descriptions that try to help students understand the bigger picture of the course, and how it will help improve their lives in some substantial way. Would love to see and hear examples from others!
For Creative Nonfiction, an upper-level writing workshop:
When Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Renin published the paperback version of Three Cups of Tea in 2007, the book shot to the top of the national bestseller lists, earned millions of dollars for their nonprofit organization, and inspired countless individuals to help build schools for girls halfway around the world. How did they inspire such changes through the simple act of organizing words on paper? My goal in this course is to help you understand what techniques and strategies of nonfiction writing—such as the ones used by Mortenson and Renin—can help change the minds and hearts of readers about issues that matter to you. Whatever writing you end up doing after you graduate—whether published books or essays, tweets or Facebook updates, advertising copy or notes to friends—I want you to understand what forms and techniques of writing grab the attention of readers, win them to your side, and inspire them to think differently.
For British Literature Survey II, a mid-level requirement for our majors:
This course is designed to help you better understand the world in which we live today—culturally, socially, politically—by tracing contemporary issues and cultural phenomenon back to their sources or to previous considerations of them in British literature and culture. By the end of this semester, for example, you will have a much clearer understanding of why J.K. Rowling writes about mudbloods and muggles in Harry Potter, or how the Spice Girls fit within a broader context of debates about women and sexuality; you will gain a fuller appreciation of the complexities involved when debates arise about the clash between new technologies or expanding industry and the environment; you will have a richer awareness of the sacrifice we ask of our soldiers, and the trauma they experience in war; you will have deepened your ability to talk about the relationship between humans and the (possible) divine. In short, this class, like any literature class, should both enrich your understanding of the human condition and your understanding of the historical and literary heritage of the English language that continues to impact our American lives today.