Puzzle Pieces: Part 1

Jigsaw Puzzle 1In the spirit of sharing, here is the first of a series of examples on the continuous-improvement approach to course redesign.

In the fall semester I will teach for the second time a seminar on disasters and survival to incoming college students. I thought last year’s inaugural version of the seminar was acceptable but that it definitely had room for improvement.

My intended outcomes for the course remain the same and act as my basic design constraint:

  • Create a classroom environment that doesn’t drive down my university’s retention rate, mainly by getting students to interact with each other as much as possible.
  • Foster higher order thinking skills so students become better decision makers (an outcome revealed by the CATS self-assessment for another course that I teach).
  • Encourage awareness of and respect for people who have cultural backgrounds and perspectives that are different from those of the students. (My research on global empathy did not detect any significant improvement on this the first time around.)

Given students’ responses to my online survey at the end of the semester, I knew that assigning different books might strengthen students’ achievement of the third outcome. Students reacted very positively to the book I assigned at the beginning of the semester, An Ordinary Man by Paul Rusesabagina, about the 1994 Rwandan genocide. However, some students said that they found the seminar’s other two books to be dull or confusing. Also, I realized after the books had been ordered that all three were written by and about men. It’s easy for me to be Exhibit A for white male privilege, but I do try to avoid it, especially since enrollment at my university is more than sixty percent female and contains a sizable proportion of first-generation college students.

So the first puzzle was finding two new books about disasters that affected people outside the USA, with at least one of them authored by a woman.

I am not be teaching introduction to IR in the fall, which means I can pull the book Chasing Chaos out of that course and into the first-year seminar. The author of Chasing Chaos is female, and the book is an autobiographical account of her experiences as a humanitarian aid worker in far-flung locations around the world. Check marks for relevance of content and author’s gender. Chasing Chaos has another benefit, referenced in the linked post above, but I’ll discuss that in detail soon in another post.

This left the third book, and I already had a few possibilities in mind: My Life As a Traitor, by Zarah Ghahramani; When Broken Glass Floats, by Chanrithy Him; and Even Silence Has an End, by Ingrid Betancourt. All are autobiographical, written by women, and discuss survival in extreme conditions.

My Life As a Traitor is about Ms. Ghahramani’s incarceration in Tehran’s Evin Prison for political activities that Iran’s government deemed subversive. It’s well-written and the author was a college student at the time the events described in the book took place. I was worried though that it would reinforce students’ pre-existing negative stereotypes about the Middle East — with no prior study of the region, it would be easy for them to attribute the treatment of Ms. Ghahramani to religion rather than to an authoritarian state that attempts to use religion to justify its oppression of citizens. So I removed the book from consideration.

When Broken Glass Floats is about the author’s childhood during Khmer Rouge Cambodia, a subject with which I am extremely familiar. This book would be very easy for me to use to stimulate class discussions. However, I realized that both it and An Ordinary Man are about genocide, and I didn’t want to make genocide the focus of the course. So I ruled this book out.

Even Silence Has an End is about the author’s six years as a hostage of the FARC in the jungles of Colombia, a story that probably a lot of people find riveting. But this book is over five hundred pages long — too much for the last third of the semester. I was not willing to drop An Ordinary Man or Chasing Chaos to fit it in. What to do?

In one of those minor epiphanies that sometimes happen when thinking about teaching, I remembered that 1) Chasing Chaos concludes with a chapter on post-earthquake Haiti, and 2) I use a book about the same topic in a graduate course — The Big Truck That Went By, by Jonathan Katz. Disaster, check. Cultural milieu that is different from that of my students, check. Short enough to fit? Check.

I have identified my three books for the next version of the course, and none obviously conflict with my learning outcome criteria. Now I have a framework on which to hang the rest of the course.

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