Last week I watched student registration numbers for spring
semester. I wondered whether
anyone would sign-up for my course.
My course for spring semester is new, and I had advertised it fairly
little, posting large fliers near museums on campus and having the flier sent
to departmental advising contacts.
As I checked online, I saw the first student and then a few more
register for the course. A minimum
enrollment threshold must be met for an undergraduate course to be taught—I’m
unsure of the exact threshold number, perhaps ten or 12—and I wondered whether
the new course would reach the minimum.
I’m teaching the new course as an overload—it’s work I’ve
volunteered to do over and beyond my standard teaching load. Volunteering for extra teaching is not
the wisest choice in a research university, where administrators clearly value
faculty more for the money they bring to campus in research grants than for
teaching. I chose to teach the new
course as part of my role as interim director of the university’s Conner Museum
of Natural History. I have long
been director of the university’s Ownbey Herbarium, which functions as a
research museum, but the new role, leading the Conner Museum, includes responsibility
for a public exhibit and broadens my outreach work. I see the new course as part of my outreach effort.
The new course, called simply Museums, will allow me to introduce students to the world of
museums. Despite the demands and
extra workload of a new course, I enjoy creating them. Creating a new course is a little like
preparing to write a book or designing a large research project. It has many dimensions, and one must
decide where to focus. The title—Museums—gives the course its theme, but it will be shaped by
two questions: How do we explain
museums? & How do we explore
museums? When teaching, I want to
cultivate in students senses for explanation and exploration. The later especially is important for
students need to gain the expertise to explore effectively on their own. Exploring is something different here
than wandering the galleries of a museum, although that wandering will
certainly be part of the exploration.
To explore, one must know how to examine while applying perspective to
interpret and think creatively.
While using perspective, exploration is a process that also enhances,
broadening and sharpening, one’s perspective.
The new course will examine what has been called ‘museum
studies’ or ‘museology,’ an awkwardly musical term that seems initially to be a
little frightening. When I first
started to think about the course several months ago, I downloaded syllabi for
museum studies courses that had been posted on the Web. I was curious to see how others had
constructed courses on museums, what topics they included, what readings were
assigned, and what projects the students conducted. Next I ordered a large pile of books and checked-out others
from the library to begin my background reading, expanding my knowledge beyond
the practical experience I’ve gained from directing university museums and
hanging-out in others. Slowly, I
have been reading the books and essays on museums, making notes, and gathering
syllabus ideas. I’ve also been
acquiring new ideas that I want to put into practice in the museums that I
I had not wanted to invest too much time in the possible new course until I knew that the enrollment number met the minimum threshold. This past week I began to draft a syllabus for the course, selecting readings and designing student projects, when the registration for the course had reached 15 students.