What do students want?

I am one of those university faculty who rarely leave their course syllabi alone. After a few years of teaching any given class, I usually find something that needs changing. The course that I change most frequently is introductory cultural geography.

The reasons for this are clear enough. I teach it every term. It is my biggest class in terms of numbers of students, and they come from all corners of campus. The challenges in finding an approach that works for everyone are endless (which, of course, makes the question in the title essentially unanswerable, and yet here I am).

The past couple of years I have built the course around a set of books written not for the geography classroom, but for a wide, albeit educated, audience. My thinking was that students would be excited to read books that had some life and personality to them, and I could use the texts as a way to draw attention to the relevance of cultural geography to daily life, or to unexpected aspects of the world.

The results were mixed.

Yes, some students were excited, happy to get something interesting to read and talk about. Another swath of students really did not care much what happened in the class, something that seems universally true for courses that fulfill gen ed requirements.

The most bothersome reaction, and the one that led me to revise the syllabus for the coming year, was from students who felt cheated by the class. Time and again I encountered students who thought, maybe felt is the better word, that I was not teaching them cultural geography, but some other idiosyncratic and arbitrary subject. Once I began to realize how deep this reaction went, I looked for ways to frame my choices for the class better, but still, the level of frustration I perceived on the part of students reached a point last year that I decided I had to make a change.

So, this year, I am holding onto one book from the past couple of years and going back to using a text that is more traditional, though having been written for the British market, probably a little ahead of where my students will be when they start my class.

The ‘hook’ that I am counting on this year to excite my classes about learning cultural geography is the incorporation of fieldwork into many, if not most, weeks. I had made small moves in that direction the past few years with mostly positive feedback from students, and maybe, in making this practice more central to the course, I will, finally, unlock the geographical imaginations of the majority of my students.

Or, at least,  following last year, I hope to have fewer students questioning whether what they’ve learned is what they should have learned.