Before Fall started I posted on changes I have made to the syllabus for my introductory cultural geography course in the hopes of improving the experience of the class for both myself and my students.
So far so good.
I have an enrollment of about forty and on any given day twenty-five to thirty show up, which, historically, is very respectable for this course. More importantly, I have a critical mass of students who act fully engaged, who do the reading, and who ask questions and are interested in what we are talking about and learning. That is not a luxury I often have at this level. I think that there are a few reasons for why this class is working so well, at least thus far.
My new main text, Jon Anderson‘s Understanding Cultural Geography: Places and Traces (Routledge, 2009), is a selection I was optimistic, but wary about at the beginning of the term. It is more sophisticated than the average basic text for cultural geography. One reason for that is that it was written with British college students as the models, and, for the most part, those students are further along in their geographic educations by the time they reach college than are their American counterparts. So, I was also concerned that some of the language and many of the examples would be alienating to my students.
Not only has neither issue been a problem, but students seem to be enjoying the book. Certainly, on the whole, they seem more intrigued by it than I have seen from any other standard text I have used. I am gauging this from what happens in class, from assessment tools I employ weekly, and from comments to the class blog.
What accounts for this I think is that Anderson uses a consistent, accessible, but still robust theoretical framework, the ‘places and traces’ of the subtitle, throughout the book. I think that this is more effective for intro level students than is the traditional survey approach where you spend a few paragraphs on a lot of ideas. Regardless of what additional topics Anderson brings in, he always pulls it back to people, animals, things, and forces making places by making/leaving traces through their actions and relationships (where ‘action’ includes doing, thinking, sensing, and feeling). I think that this consistency gives students a clear sense of building a body of knowledge.
Anderson’s framework is also easy to translate into activities that students can do, and I have designed a series of ‘field exercises’ for the class to apply what they’re learning from each chapter. This helps me show how relevant cultural geography can be, and makes it easy to mix up my teaching for students with different styles of learning. I have not had a chance to see any completed exercise yet, those come next week, but the initial experience appears to have been nothing but positive.
It may also be the case that I simply have an exceptional group of students this term. I am teaching at 8:00 am, and based on past experience, many students who choose early classes are often more serious about being present, in an attention sense, than are those who opt for more comfortable start times. But there’s clearly more going on here than just that, maybe something that won’t be replicable.
On the other hand, Western students have been getting ‘better’ over recent years. Admission standards have been raised (still in the sub 3.0 gpa range), and there’s more of an effort to exclude from admission those students who show little promise for succeeding in college. The unversity has also been expanding its recruitment well beyond the local region which, if nothing else, means that you get a more diverse mix of students in terms of their high school experiences and preparation for higher education.
So, maybe this will be a good year and not just a good term. For now, I am enjoying having an intro class that I don’t see as a chore.