We had a lively department meeting this morning, one that raised any number of questions without solving any. Which I guess is okay, since we have a few other meetings scheduled to keep working on the Big Issue ... except that it's not clear to me how we're actually going to move forward here.
The Big Issue is our senior English courses, which in theory are electives and thus more college-like, except that (1) all of our courses are year-long, so students don't really get to choose different courses each term; and (2) there are actually only two real electives, both of which are good courses but sound deadly dull; plus (e) about half of our students take AP Lit, so the "electives" really wind up being the non-AP options and thus seem like the reject courses. All of the courses are actually quite good, but there's only one of them that students actually look forward to taking; in general, students seem pretty ho-hum about senior English, which is something we'd like to change as a department.
The question, of course, is how to change it.
One option is jazzing up the electives, giving them more interesting titles and themes and mixing things up a little, so that they sound like fun courses to take. One goal that the department chair and I both have is to get a little more circulation among the faculty in courses, so that we're changing things up occasionally, keeping teachers and courses fresh. So instead of the same old courses year in and year out, every year or two there could be different elective options that sound more interesting.
Another option that one teacher keeps proposing is to simply make every single senior course count as "Advanced Placement." If the theory is that AP means the equivalent of a college freshman course, than it probably is the case that 90% of our students are actually working at that level anyway. So then we could offer 6 or 7 different electives each year, and all of them would be AP courses and students would take the exam at the end of the year. I have mixed feelings about this idea: there is real value, I find, in having the students working at the highest level together in a course that gets to move faster and go more in depth. But the annual selection of who gets into AP and who doesn't is the most agonizing part of every year, and the department chair, who teaches the course, says that by this point she's been pressured to let in so many students that it's all kind of watered down and slower anyway. So do we just throw the doors wide open? Or do we narrow the gates a little more and step up the quality of the course? There are clearly good arguments to be made in either direction.
A couple of our competitor schools have actually eliminated the AP English option altogether, which would be another option, but I think the school wouldn't go for it. College pressures are simply intense enough that we're being pushed to let in as many students into AP Lit as possible ... which on the one hand I understand but on the other hand is annoying because no other department gets this pressure. The theory is that English is the easiest of the APs. Unfortunately, under our department chair, who teaches the course, that has actually been true, so it has legitimately earned that reputation. If it actually ran at a high level, and grades were correspondingly low, perhaps there wouldn't be that student pressure to be let into the course?
One of the other big questions we have is the creative writing course, which is the only one that younger students actually look forward to taking. And the teacher who has taught it for years is very good. But she runs it as a by-application course, which means that every year there are a few students who have longed to take it and who see themselves as writers who get rejected. And there isn't another creative writing course for them to take, so they wind up in the "reject" electives. And she refuses to budge on opening up the course.
Plus, she's got a death grip on the course and clearly doesn't intend to let anyone else in the department teach creative writing until she retires in ten years or so. What makes this particularly frustrating is that she is and always has been a part-time teacher; she teaches two courses, both of them senior courses, and she made quite clear in this morning's meeting that she couldn't possibly teach any of the younger courses and that it is vital that she continue teaching the creative writing course "for the good of the students," making quite clear that those of us who were interested in having more faculty movement among the courses -- and thus removing the "experts" from the courses they had crafted over the years -- were sacrificing the students' well-being for our own selfish motivations. It was very annoying, to say the least! If she were anyone else, I think the department chair could just assign her courses in the same way the rest of us get them assigned (that is, our stated desires are taken into account, but you can't always get what you want), but she's an institution at the school, having been teaching there (part-time!) for over twenty years and had both of her daughters graduate from the school.
Did I mention that this woman is my co-author on the FGS history book? I see some conflict ahead of us, given our various roles. Ah well.
Plus there's another colleague who is convinced that our entire discussion is a conspiracy forced upon us by the evil administration. But that's kind of his idée fixe. During our discussion, he got up and wrote on the board "Don't take the bait," which is the sort of thing that he does.
Another issue is that the school has really been making a big deal about wanting some faculty to pioneer "interdisciplinary" courses -- by which they actually mean inter-departmental courses -- and so one of our new teachers is working with a history teacher to put together a very cool-sounding African American studies senior course. Except that the school is insisting at the moment that team-teaching a course is like teaching only half a course -- not understanding at all that it is MORE work, not less work -- and so what the administration wants is for them to teach two sections of the course, which would take literally 1/3 of our senior class. (There are around 95 students in each year at FGS, and class size is usually around 15.) And the history department chair refuses to allow the course to "count" as a history course because he doesn't want to draw enrollment away from other history electives, but if it counts as senior English, then we're really left with only one other elective (plus AP and the creative writing course) to offer seniors. That's no good.
This sort of thing is one reason I'm not sure I'm cut out to be department chair. I don't know what the answer is, and I'm not sure how to move the department toward an answer. Not that it's my responsibility to do so -- I am, after all, not the chair until this summer -- but I will be the one to usher whatever changes we propose through all of the bureaucratic rounds next year, so I need to have step up to the plate in what happens now.
Sigh. I'm a little bit excited but a lot more flummoxed by all of this.