Courses and classes

Ah, the start of a new semester -- immediately interrupted, as happens almost every Fall, by the annual American Political Science Association conference, which invariably happens over Labor Day Weekend. This year it's a bit odd, as the conference is in downtown DC; since I live here, I am both a local agent for arranging dinners and such, and splitting my time between conferencing (yes, it's a verb, and it indicates a whole different form of life than that ordinarily found outside of professional conferences. More on that in another entry, if I feel so inclined) and being at home to do family things like put the kids to bed.

Besides the general craziness of early September, I am always struck at this time of year how different a course can be from iteration to iteration. I distinguish between courses and classes: courses are defined by a number in the catalog, a syllabus, and a title, and perhaps by a basic core set of readings and activities. [Precisely how many of the core readings and activities can change before the course transmutes into another course is a matter of some dispute, kind of like Wittgenstein's question in Philosophical Investigations about how many houses it takes to make something a "city" rather than a "town" -- the answer, of course, is that neither term has an absolute and fixed meaning, so that any attempt to answer the question takes its bearings not from a determinate distinction but from the local rules of the language-game governing the use of the terms in practice. In other words: it's a new course when I say it's a new course, and when I can substantiate that claim within some given language-game and convince other participants to accept my characterization.]

Classes, by contrast, are the collections of people who participate in the course when it is offered; a particular class is a particular group of people, including myself, who undertake the semester-long journey that is shaped and structured by the course. But not determined: I can promote the same discussions, assign the same readings, in a course year after year, but the result is somewhat different for each class. I traditionally do the "what do you know?" drill at the beginning of my 206 course, but each class reacts differently and we generate a slightly different conversation every time. The conversations -- like the classes as a whole -- bear a family resemblance to one another, but each takes unique twists and turns and displays a different character.

It's important to keep in mind that classes are different not merely because the students (and my assistant(s), if any are involved in the course that semester) are different, but because I am also different from semester to semester. What I stress, what I downplay, what waves I send out into the shared pedagogical space of the classroom are never quite the same from instance to instance, even though I work from a similar script (and often a set of slides, when I am lecturing) each time. I regard the slides as sheet music, though, and I improvise around them, playing off the students in the class just as they play off of me. And class discussions are even wilder, since we may read the same words on the page in, say, Hobbes or Thucydides, but I have no idea where we are going to go from semester to semester in our collective consideration of that material. I'm always surprised, which is part of the fun of the whole exercise.

This semester I have two courses running, one of which (research methodology) I've taught many many times before, and the other of which ("Masterworks," which is basically a political philosophy of international relations course) I've only taught once before. But I have no clearer idea of where the former is going than I do the latter.

If I ever knew precisely what a class was going to do, I'd think that it was time to ditch the course or radically rework it -- largely because I'd have no idea how to participate in such a class. A good course permits and furthers a kind of joint action conversational process, a distinguishing characteristic of which is that none of us individually have complete control over it. In that sense, a certain amount of ignorance -- or, perhaps, humility -- on my part opens the space for a much more interesting class to take root and flower.

Since this is a "course diary," expect notes from the road as we find ourselves meandering along it.

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