Struggling to launch a qualitative methods course

For the past few years, I have been alternating a course in qualitative research methods (even years) with one in making digital video for the social sciences (odd years). The latter has started well in terms of enrollment, and, I think, is steadily improving. Significantly, I think that the good enrollment is related to the improvement in that having an adequate number of students gives me a clearer, and more reliable, way to see what’s working and what’s not, what’s an individual problem and what’s more systemic, and where I need to find more resources or better patches for what the university lacks in capacity to support the course.

The qualitative methods course has been a different story.

The first year I voluntarily pulled it from the schedule, early, when it failed to attract any students during initial registration. The next time I offered the course, I netted three students. So far this year I am looking at four (progress!).

In the earlier cases, I was working in a context where university administrators were at least playing at waging war on “low enrollment” sections. I volunteered to pull the course the first time in part to earn some credit to use later, and in part because the only person affected would be me. I imagine that this choice paid off the next time when I only had three students, but wanted the course to go (I don’t pretend to understand the economics of closing “low enrolling” sections, particularly in the case of my department where all of our courses are taught by full-time, tenure track faculty; the only adjuncts we’ve used in the last ten years have been to cover sabbaticals and course releases).

I’m not being pre-emptive this year because administrative discourse has shifted from being concerned primarily with individual sections to being concerned with numbers of majors. This isn’t “better”, especially from the perspective of the geography faculty where we typically graduate between nine and twelve majors each year. But it does mean that there is less pressure to account for every section.

Both the digital video course and qualitative methods course were added to the catalog as part of a revision to the geography major that instituted a capstone requirement and reorganized the elective part of the program into different streams or concentrations, e..g, “Cultural & Political”, “Physical Environment”. All majors are required to take a certain number of credits in “geographic thought and practice”, ideally from courses that make sense from the perspective of their chosen concentration and capstone plans. The changes to the geography major prefigured similar changes to the social science major at Western Oregon, which now requires students to complete a “theory and methods” requirement as well as take at least half of their credits in one field.

And yet while the DV course has met or exceeded the cap each time I’ve taught it, the qualitative methods course does not seem to be getting any traction with students.

While frustrating, this isn’t too difficult to understand. It isn’t the kind of course that presents as an exciting elective for non-majors. Furthermore, not only is the geography major relatively small, but the majority of those students concentrate in areas other than cultural and political geography, for which this course is primarily designed and most appropriate. In fact, I suspect that the students I currently have will turn out to be social science, and not geography, majors (one reason I know this is that none of the students on my list are currently my advisees).

Being able to understand why my numbers are so low is one thing. Trying to build a course while teaching such small numbers is another. I did get some good feedback from the last (small) group I taught, but all of those students were novices when it came to social science research methods, and none were especially sophisticated or grounded in social theory before starting the course. Based on my experience with other courses, including the DV course, if I had had at least nine to twelve students instead of three I would have had a wider range of individuals to work with in terms of experience and aptitude and would have ended with a more refined picture of how the course works for students.

As it is, assuming I end up teaching small numbers every time, it may take years to get a better idea of how to run the course. Right now I feel like I am stabbing in the dark and having to rely on my own impressions, which I do anyway, but I prefer to have more input from students in assessing my own thoughts than I have for this course so far.

Courses that involve scientific practice are challenging to teach in any case, particularly, I think, in a quarters system where you only get ten weeks to work with students.

I made the case for the class to go last time with three students because it seems obvious that in order to develop the course I need to teach it. I tried to split the difference between reading and field/project work. That worked ok, but the students, all three of them, told me that the one thing they wanted was more time in the field. So, this year I’m going to experiment with making individual projects the focus of student work, including what reading different students do. In effect, I decided, if the class is going to be this small, I might as well leverage that smallness into highly individualized instruction. There will be a few common readings, but mostly I will be working with students on different methods according to their interests and what they want to, or should, be practicing.

What I need, what I hope, is that somehow, in this group of four, I have at least one student who is fully invested and engaged by the material. There’s a risk of overvaluing what you observe or hear from those students, but I also think that there is value in a perspective that is above the common denominator. When I proposed the course I certainly envisioned, ultimately, having students who are prepared to dig deep into the doing of geography, both during the term and into their capstone work.

Interesting, and interested, students make for interesting teaching, and, on the whole, I think that the less engaged students benefit from the ways in which the more engaged push me to think more seriously about the material. This is one thing I think I’m missing with the methods course. On the other hand, I also don’t think I have a good sense even of “the students I have” as opposed to the “students I want”. Maybe that will become more clear this term. And maybe I’ll just keep adding one student each time I offer the course. At that rate, I can look forward to having the course take shape around the time I begin thinking about retirement.

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2 thoughts on “Struggling to launch a qualitative methods course

  1. Fall is coming « A Weird Fish

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