On Writing Course Descriptions

It’s that time of the semester, when students have started enrolling for their Spring courses and you have probably been asked by your department and/or university to submit a short course description. Sometimes your institution’s course catalogue will have a generic course description that students can see before enrolling, although there might be options for you to add in notes about the expectations, texts that students would read and the kind of assignment that the course might have. In short, course description often play a bureaucratic role, with the objective of drawing students in order to avoid course cancellations.

There is a utilitarian logic to the project of writing course descriptions, but as scholars and teachers in the humanities, how can we think of course descriptions differently?

In 2019, after coming back to US during a very hot summer, I attended a workshop of the University Teaching Center at Pitt on how to write a syllabus. A section of the workshop was dedicated to writing course descriptions. We were shown different models of course descriptions and given a handout of Bloom’s Taxonomy and were asked to use those verbs in the handout while writing course descriptions. I came back with some idea about how a course description could look like but was not entirely inspired to adopt/adapt any of the models that we were introduced to. It was formal, structured and would probably do the work of “attracting students” but I was not happy with it. There was something missing. I realized much later that what was indeed missing was a sense of risk-taking and playfulness that involves learning.

Throwback to late Fall 2019, one of my professors Dr. Khirsten Scott, whom I greatly look up to told me something during a mentoring session: “Course descriptions are the first text that a student encounters about a course”. That one sentence from her was enough to persuade me that course descriptions are not a one-off thing. It is a space of possibility to engage students through-out the course and one that we could probably come back to again and again to interrogate our assumptions, the embodiment that we bring in the classroom and to imagine radical futures. Taking this as a premise, I outline here : my approach to writing course descriptions, briefly offer ideas on class activities and assignments centered around course descriptions and finally I share two of my own course descriptions.

My approach to writing course descriptions

Before writing a course description, there are a few questions that one would want to have some ideas about :

a) What do I want to foreground in this course ?What do I want my students to take away from this course? What is the argument of this course (readings, ideas, writing, combination etc)

b) How am I going to structure this course ? (Time-periods, ideas, genres, writing assignments)

I usually cannot write a course description, if I don’t have these things sorted/have some idea about.

Once I have this in place, I choose an image that will be an entry point for my students to discuss course themes. While choosing an image for a course (which is very much a part of this course description), I remind myself of a couple of things :

i) What is the story of the image?

ii) Can I use this image in the ‘classroom’ for a small activity/generate a discussion session?

iii) Am I complying with copyrights ? ( Full disclosure : I will always credit the creator but I am a strong copy-left advocate)

iv) Is there an alt-text available for the image ? or do I have to write one?

Once I have an image in place , I have a three paragraph course description(but not exceeding 300 words):

In the first paragraph, I use a story to enter into the course (often directly deriving from the images).

In the second paragraph, I highlight the key questions, themes and what we are re-centering in this course.

I use the third paragraph to give students some idea of the course structure, assignments and the organizing logic. I also tell the range of texts that we will be reading (both ‘geographies and ‘genres’)

What do I want my course description to achieve?

a) It’s the first text of the course and we come back to it often, in the semester to rethink where we started and where we are at.

b) The verbs that I use in the course description are very important to highlight the focus of the class. For instance, in this semester, I found myself using verbs that include ‘immerse’, ‘listen’, ‘inhabit’ and ‘advocate, a marked shift from the ones , I earlier used such as ‘examine’ and ‘investigate’. The ways in which I use verbs in the course descriptions are also tied to the readings and assignments, and help co-create a space that would enable students to ‘immerse’, ‘listen’ etc. It is a way of embracing provisionality and unthinking mastery in language, albeit not always a success.

c) Helps me and my students understand better what the priorities of this course are.

Opening writing prompts, class activities and Micro Assignments around Course Descriptions.

a) Take 7 minutes to closely read and underline the action verbs in the course description. What are some of the verbs that you would use besides the one already mentioned, to describe what you intend to ‘do’ for this class?

b) Asking students at the end of the semester to write their own course description for the same course. I think this would work very well for a grad class but might work with advanced undergrads too.

c) In my course description of Border Stories(see below), I used the story of Alan Kurdi as an entry point to talk about borders. What story would you use to have a conversation with one of your peers about borders?

d) In my course description of Global Environmental Justice, I used a litany of names of places to have a conversation about what makes a place global. If you were to re-draw a map for this class, what other places would make into your map and why?

Sample Course Descriptions

Seminar in Composition: Topics in Diversity

Border Stories: Power, Poetics and Architecture, Taught: Spring 2020

Image of Migrants in the Mediterranean

Alt text : Guardian Cover Photo. Migrants huddled in a boat on the Mediterranean. Some are wearing life-jackets, most do not. The people travelling on the board exceeds the carrying capacity of the boat

Course Description:

In September 2015, the body of three-year old Syrian boy Alan Kurdi was found washed ashore on the coast of Turkey after the boat of his family had capsized on the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. Kurdi’s family was part of the historic flow of refugees from Middle East to Europe that year. His death caused huge international debate about the ethics of existence of borders, which make people undergo such dangerous journeys. Kurdi’s story, however is not unique, especially considering that very often stories of borders( invisible) and border crossings do not receive limelight of the media. In rare instances where they do receive attention, they are often relegated to a mere data-set of migrant deaths and crossing, which though important shifts away the focus from what it actually means to cross borders or what makes people cross borders, in the first place.

At the heart of this course is a single question: Why do borders exist? Are they at all required or are they simply present to consolidate the power of the State? This course invites you to think through these questions and reflect on the various forms of borders that are pervasive in our contemporary life: linguistic, geographic, cultural and temporal. Border Stories take inspiration from the fact that narratives allow us the space to tell stories that are often untold, neglected and completely suppressed by a mainstream and normative discourse. Therefore in this class, we will recenter stories(verbal, visual, auditory) to make sense of the world that we live in and to imagine possibilities of a world that is yet to come. Stories would be our entry-point to delve deeper into our own writing and understand where we are located in relation to borders. To put it another way: How do borders affect us in our everyday existence? What would it mean to imagine a world without borders?

Grounded in three critical analytics: power, poetics and architecture, we will use the trope of borders in the texts that we read and in our writing, to parse out a) how power operates in how we define borders and our positionality in relation to borders b) to understand the aesthetics of narration or the impossibility of narration in border stories and c) finally, to investigate the infrastructure and architecture that borders generate such as walls, detentions centers, catapults and tunneling machines. Our readings, discussion and assignments will take a global approach to the study of borders, and therefore, we will engage with texts that deal with a wide-ranging of geographies and case studies, namely US-Mexico Borders, The Mediterranean Refugee Crisis, The Partition of India, The Kashmir Crisis, The Rohingyas, and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Our fundamental objective in this class would be to generate a set of key terms through which we talk about borders and anchor our writing through this shared creation of vocabulary about borders.

Imagining Social Justice(Lit Course)

Ecologies for the Future: Global Environmental Justice

University of Pittsburgh, Fall 2020

Cover Image of National Geographic : Jorge Gamboa (Used under Creative Commons License)

Alt-text: Image showing only a part of a plastic bag on the surface of the ocean. The visible part of the plastic resembles the tip-of an iceberg.

Course Description:

In the June of 2018, this National Geographic cover image by artist Jorge Gamboa captured the grim reality of an average of 18 billion pounds of plastic ending up in earth’s oceans. In what was described as the “tip of the ice-berg”, this brilliant and chilling image was at once a reminder of the garbage patch under the sea as well encapsulated our present moment threatened with global warming, climate change, melting of glaciers and sea-level rise. It is not a story of optimism.

Our class on “Ecologies for the Future: Global Environmental Justice” turns this framework of despondency and crises on its head to ask: What constitutes an environmentally just future? How does imagining a multispecies ecology for the future require us to shift the lens from the spectacular to the everyday? A provisional response to these questions might invite us to broaden our understanding of justice from a legal perspective to forms of justice that are speculative, temporary and cognizant of the inequalities in law itself. We will approach justice as a form, a method and as an argument to ruminate on the affordances that literature and the arts offer us in envisioning the future.

‘Ecologies for the future’ will move through a series of geographies, real and imaginative: Antigua in West Indies; Siliguri, Sunderbans, Purulia and New Delhi in India; Chittagong in Bangladesh; Lagos in Nigeria; Venice in Italy; and Detroit in Michigan to reflect on the qualifier ‘global’. This litany of names and places will enable us to come together in order to think through: what makes a text ‘global’? What logic of colonialism and capitalism does ‘global’ reiterate and what does it erase/stay silent on? We will read texts from a wide variety of genres: novels, short-stories, graphic novels, creative nonfiction, poetry; view short films and spend time watching underwater sculptures. In keeping with the spirit of play that this class recenters, you will have the opportunity to compose personal essays, visual texts, ask questions about how environmental data is created and disseminated, bring texts in conversation with each other and work on an environmental justice issue of your choice.

Grounding our inquiry in water, trees, food, ships and bodies: we will reckon with justice as a form of worldmaking to flesh out the poetics and politics of texts; we will immerse in the challenges of urban habitation; we will consider the uneven nature of resource distribution; we will listen to places and communities as vibrant and living archives; we will advocate for another world.

We will…

The possibilities are for you to imagine

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