Arc and Episode

This post is the third in my “how to build a course” series. Today I’m going to discuss thematic concepts, and to do so I’m going to switch up my metaphor from the puzzle to tv shows. It’ll make sense, I promise.

Some shows find incredible success with an episodic format. Others are all about story arc. In the middle are a few that balance both. It’s the same with classes. Some courses really don’t need much of an arc to frame them. The very topic propels the course forward in a logical progression. Kind of like hearing the Law & Order bom bohm, you know what you’re getting into from day one. There’s not much to say about these kind of classes because choosing topics feels like a foregone conclusion. I still like to have an intro session at the beginning of the semester and a wrap up to discuss how everything fits together at the end, but the frame is minimal. For instance, I’m currently teaching Planning History and Practice. So guess what? I start with history, then go over the basics of planning, then the main sub-fields of planning (transportation, housing, etc.) Done! There’s really no need to constantly explain what we’re doing, because everyone knows what to expect from the title alone.

At the other end of the spectrum, some courses are all arc, no case/corpse of the week. For instance, my labs are all project driven. These courses are the most inspiring, certainly, but they require complete commitment. You can’t half watch Game of Thrones or House of Cards. Miss an episode and you’ll be left in the dust. Similarly, arc-based courses are no joke. You have to be on all the time and commit to the big picture. In those courses, the schedule is more of a suggestion, and keeping track of how far you are on any given task takes precedence. In arc courses, there’s no need for me to actively frame the work most of the time because the conversation naturally moves back to the big picture. There are plenty of other challenges, of course, but at least broaching theory just happens without forcing the issue.

Most courses, however, need a balance of both. Without the episodes, it may be tough to cover all the material, but without the arc, you can loose touch with the real reason for the course. What I try to avoid at all costs is having the minutiae take over. I’ve seen this happen too often: students get a good grasp of the week-to-week stuff, but are left with no idea of how it all fits into the larger context. I know invoking “theory” is enough to make undergrads shudder, but it’s important. As much as possible, I fold it in like spinach in a lasagna. It’s not enough to cover the theory. Instead, it should be linked overtly to the course material and practice.

To reinforce my chosen theme this week, it’s like the monsters of the week vs. the season Big Bad in Buffy. There’s nothing wrong with the monsters of the week. In fact, some of them were FANTASTIC (the Gentlemen, Vampire Willow.) But without the Big Bad, there’s no growth in the story or the characters. So although the Gentlemen were amazing, season 4 was meh in terms of Big Bad (seriously, the Initiative and Adam were lame). In contrast, the Mayor made for a fantastic season 3 even with episodes like Swim Team.

Evil Willow was the best Big Bad. Ask me why if you want my reasoning, but in that case I hope you have no plans for the remainder of the day.

To get this out of Epic Nerdery and back to Academic Nerdery: In my case study course International Preservation, I had to figure out a framing system to make the course function as a whole rather than a list of topics. I knew from my research that I’d have to cover international organizations and then would shift to case studies from around the world. So far so good, but it’s still just a list of stuff. To make it a coherent whole, I made a Big Bad of sorts. In the first couple weeks, we started developing a number of characteristics related to international preservation (like ease of access, condition of the rescue, importance of tourism, etc.) We periodically revisited the list and refined it into a scale. Then when we got to the case studies around the world, we applied the scale to each case. Finally, at the end of the semester, we revisited the scale one more time and discussed how it could be further improved to capture the truly important elements of international preservation.

The course could have certainly worked without the scale, but I found that developing this arc, and continuously revisiting, applying, and revising it made for a much more engaging and meaningful semester. Moreover, it meant that students were active participants throughout the process. Realistically, they have probably all forgotten the details regarding UNESCO and ICCROM by now. But they probably still know to assess the feasibility and effectiveness of historic preservation depending on the scale they developed. The Big Bad leaves marks, and that’s exactly what I was going for.

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