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How I stopped worrying and learned to embrace pre-prepared courses

Written by: George Justice
Published on: 1 Nov 2021

Arizona State University, as a whole, has done better than most colleges and universities during the pandemic. We had already embraced learning technology and had developed a robust set of courses for students on campus and far-flung alike. We were well positioned to serve the students we already had and to attract new students. Our enrolment has actually increased over the past year-and-a-half.

During the 2020-2021 school year, I taught online − a mix of courses designed for students on and off campus. It went well, and I received student evaluations as strong as I’d ever had. I found I could connect more with students who might have been quieter in face-to-face settings, while the students who could take advantage of in-person discussion continued to make their voices heard. I missed the in-person give and take, a group of us all analysing the same books at the same time, but it wasn’t bad at all.

This autumn I was assigned to online teaching again − this time in our English department’s online master’s programme. I immediately started concocting visions of the multi-genre course that I would put together especially for the shorter seven-week length of the class. No, I wouldn’t be assigning Samuel Richardson’s amazing novel Clarissa or George Eliot’s classic Middlemarch. But we’d read poetry, plays and shorter fiction: works often left out of this kind of course in favour of great novels by authors such as Defoe, Austen, Dickens.

Fortunately I shared my plans with the programme directors in my department.

Actually, I wouldn’t be teaching the course I envisioned: I’d be teaching the already established “shell” created by a colleague a few years back, a course on the Gothic in the 18th and 19th centuries.

What is a “shell”, you ask? I had to figure this out, too.

Apparently, our department commissions a few faculty members to fill out our online master’s curriculum with a limited number of complete courses that can subsequently be taught by anyone. The course includes not only a set of pre-chosen readings, but also video lectures and assignments, including the discussion board, research and essay assignments, plus quizzes and tests. Both my courses for the autumn of 2021 were shells, and I was explicitly told not to change them.

It dawned on me: I was basically going to be a glorified grader for my colleagues’ courses.

The economics of “the shell” provide a powerful incentive to create curricula in this way. As I started asking around, I was told that shells are built specifically so they can be taught by anyone with a doctoral degree in the field, including contract faculty members who might be paid $5,000 (£3,675) to teach the course.

One of the courses enrolled 38 master’s students; the other had 28. Let’s round (down) the amount the students are paying to $1,000 each. This means the university brings in $66,000 for instruction they might pay $10,000 for. The (minimal) constraints on this money-making machine are the supply of students and the supply of faculty members. And at the moment there are plenty of both.

The economics are a bit different when a tenured faculty member such as me is teaching the shell. I realised that the department was forgoing profit by assigning me to these courses; instead of pestering programme directors with eruptions of frustration, I should have been expressing gratitude.

And there’s one more key aspect to teaching via shell: the department can exercise quality control over our programmes. Sadly, when you stick most English professors, used to controlling their own courses from beginning to end, in an online programme, they are likely to fail if left to their own devices. What works in person doesn’t necessarily work online, from the kinds of assignments to the length of lectures and texture of class discussion. The shell, approved at multiple levels in the department and university, guarantees that students and faculty alike can focus on course material in the abbreviated seven-week terms of our online programmes.

In my case, this has meant a lot more time for engaging with students on discussion boards and a lot less time preparing lectures. I don’t love (actually, I hate) “teaching” a colleague’s lectures. But I do love spending that time focused on class discussion. Are my feelings hurt that the students don’t recognise me as the genius expert sharing my wisdom with them? A bit. I do love leading a class in person, and my ego is surely involved with that.

But the students are clearly learning a lot − including many things I would never have put in the course if I were designing it myself. That’s a bit humbling. But it’s also refreshing. I’m learning not only from the courses that my colleagues have put together, but I’m learning, from my students, new things about how they interact with material that I thought I understood extremely well. It’s powerful when a student declares how their mind has been opened by material I had disdained when first reviewing a course’s contents.

This autumn I feel a bit like a hermit crab: an exposed, fragile teacher who finds on the beach of my university a used shell that I can inhabit for a time. The shell protects me from outside forces and gives me a home. As I grow as an online teacher, the shells I inhabit might end up too small or otherwise uncomfortable for me. But I will find others, and as I learn, perhaps I’ll be able to contribute in similar fashion to my colleagues and my students.

George Justice is professor of English at Arizona State University, specialising in 18th-century British literature and the practice of higher education. He is also the principal of DeverJustice LLC, and his most recent book is How to Be a Dean.