Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Ethics of Course Design

I was wondering what everyone's thoughts were on the idea of modeling a course on a book -- say, an overview of a particular subject area -- but not requiring students to buy or read the book. Here's the situation I'm thinking of:

One of the courses I have taught in the recent past was a seminar on the "meaning of life". Originally I wanted to cover the recent analytic literature on the problem, but my students weren't quite ready for that. So we ended up reading a few books and selections from an anthology, tied together by connections drawn by myself. It was actually my highest rated course ever, but I wasn't satisfied by the level of structure vs. free-thinking, so I put it on the shelf until I could reorganize things.

Publishing little books on the meaning of life seems to have been all the rage in the recent past, so I was looking over a few when I found Julian Baggini's What's It All About. It's not written for the specialist, but for someone new to the debate. And though it doesn't go into much depth (and contains some misunderstandings of Buddhism), it's pretty good at highlighting passages from philosophy, psychology, and pop culture that apply very smoothly to the overall debate. I wouldn't want to use the actual book for the course: I think students would end up attacking the author rather than the ideas and see the book as hubristic as opposed to the fairly humble work it actually is. They also like to read "the greats" rather than secondary literature about the greats, according to informal surveys. But the sequence of the topics, the literature Baggini refers to, and the basic structure of the arguments would make for an excellent outline in my course.

So of course I would have to give Baggini credit for the structure of the course at some point, and I have no idea with pointing my students to the book if they want to check it out for themselves. But what do you all think about the idea of otherwise completely ripping off someone's carefully assembled reading list without assigning the book in which it appears?


  1. Sounds like a great idea. Why wouldn't it be? Sources of teaching inspiration deserve credit, for sure, but they aren't owed any formal measures to redistribute money from your students to them.

  2. Well, would it be completely "ripped off" or would you be modifying the structure at all? Also, you don't have to assign the book but you can suggest it in your syllabus as recommended reading along with other secondary literature.

    But if someone has a great idea there's no reason not to utilize it so long as there is proper attribution.

  3. The book is very cheap, so why not just make it an optional text? Say you like the book and how it presents things, but -- for the reasons you present above -- you don't think it really needs to be read although, nevertheless, students are free to get it and read it if they want.

  4. I'd really have to see how closely it replicates Bagginni's work, but, generally, I think it's fine to use the work of others as a template. Some ways of laying out the conceptual terrain resound more with us than others and I don't think we have any sort of privilege to the particular way we've laid it out, whether it's published or not.

    That said, give Baggini some credit for the inspiration, plug the book, and teach with a clear conscience, especially if your changes are made for the benefit of the students.

  5. One of my colleagues who runs our English Language Program often points out to me that academics have a fondness for reinventing the wheel. It is part of our job to teach students to think for themselves, and so we must discourage them from doing no more than copying existing ideas. To get a Ph.D., or to publish work, originality is required. We place such a high premium on originality, that we like to think everything we do involves at least a touch of originality. And after all, we wouldn't be where we are if we didn't enjoy exercising our creativity: making up course material can be fun.

    But often, the perfect way to achieve some desired result has already been worked out. If we try to improve it, to make it more original, it might boost our ego but result in an inferior process or product.

    If Baggini's framework works well, I wouldn't feel any guilt about using it, and wouldn't feel any need to make alterations just so that I could tell myself that I was being original. Of course, give credit to Baggini and encourage students to read his book, and if any worthwhile improvements occur to you, use them.

    Even if you don't modify the structure one iota, I don't think you're ripping off Baggini's work. Call me uncreative, but I like my plain round wheels, and don't make any effort to improve them.

  6. If you lean heavily on a book for the design of the course, you could -- as a minimum -- list the text as a "Recommend Text" in the syllabus.


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