Reflecting on a successful intro class

Before the term started I wrote about changes I had made to my introductory cultural geography course, and then had a mostly optimistic assessment of how those changes were playing out a few weeks into Fall. As the term comes to a close, I can write that the class remained a pleasure to teach and one of my most active and interesting at that level I have ever taught.

As with the earlier check-in, my reflection is based not only on my impressions of what went on in the classroom, but also from weekly learning assessments that give me an idea of how things are going and discussions on the class blog.

What elevated this class for me is the level of engagement from my students. I am accustomed to a certain measure of apathy, and even to hostility from those perplexed about what they are being asked to learn and do. While there are students in the class right now who clearly just want to get through with a passing grade, a significant core, including more than a few who did not participate much in class or on the blog, demonstrated to me a clear interest in the material.

On the final assessment for the term, students indicated that the class had taught them to be more observant about how people live and how they act in different places, has raised their curiosity about specific topics addressed during the term, such as gender, youth culture, and even research methodology, and a few even started to ask questions about what one can do with cultural geography. I can’t think of a prior term where I had students express such varying and marked levels of interest in the field.

I think that the new text had much to do with this positive orientation towards the class; the fact that a number of students expressed an appreciation for the book suggests this as well. But it is also clear from other responses to what we did, that the text came across as comprehensible and relevant to a majority of students. Equally clear is that my decision to send students out into the field to apply class concepts also worked to activate people’s geographical imaginations and underscore the relevance of the text to understanding the everyday.

What I did not anticipate is that one of the attractions to the course would be a sense of empowerment. A number of students indicated that the idea that we all participate in the making of places, and being able to see that in specific cultural activities, left them feeling more engaged, not just with the course but also with the world. Similarly, many students responded well to defining “culture” as “what people do” as opposed what they possess or are born with. This was clearly a new and liberating idea to those who kept thinking on it during the term.

I already have a list of improvements and ways to experiment with the class for next quarter, but one of the most important is finding a means to better integrate the second book. This term I had students giving a cultural geographic reading to Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, and that may have been a little ambitious, especially in the few weeks I set aside for the task. In Winter, I am switching to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, and will see how that works. I will not be changing the time allotted.

In the same vein, a number of students expressed a desire for more time on this or that subject, and I am sympathetic to that, but in any survey context, you always have to make compromises on depth. What I saw this term was a sparking of curiosity, and that is probably the best result for a class like this. I will give this more thought as the year progresses.

I am also waiting to see if the main factor this term was the students. I may have had a unique group. I hope not, of course, but based on past experience, I can’t dismiss the thought either. I am looking to Winter with both anticipation and trepidation.