What's behind those 559 College classes?

Looking into the process of creating new classes

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It’s a Tuesday morning and first-year College students Celia Gieser and Julianna LaRose have just left their 9:30 a.m. class in New Cabell Hall. The class is SOC 2559 or “New Course in Sociology,” with the subtitle “Microsociology.”

Gieser and LaRose were aware the class was new when they enrolled. There were no reviews of the class on Course Forum or opinions of the professor on Rate My Professor. Both had to go off of reviews from students at JMU, where the professor teaches a few courses.

LaRose admitted she was slightly nervous about taking a new class, but found the lack of information online allowed her to go in with an open mind.

“It’s interesting because you don’t go in with all these preconceptions,” LaRose said. “I really did not know what to expect from this class.”

Negative reviews of classes or professors online can often deter students from taking those classes, something LaRose said she has experienced. Even though there weren’t any reviews for SOC 2559 on Course Forum, neither Gieser or LaRose were dissuaded from trying the class.

Now both are looking at other new courses to enroll in for next semester.

About those 559 classes

Courses in the College labeled “New Course” on the Student Information System are either one-time courses professors can teach to test a topic for a potential permanent course, or courses taught by visiting faculty members that won’t be offered again.

In SIS, one can search for course numbers containing 559.This produces a list of all test or one-time courses offered each semester entitled “New Course in” followed by the department name. Each department may offer a number of New Course sections and each section has its own subtitle indicating the topic of the course. This spring, 125 new course class sections were offered and 76 are currently being offered next fall, according to SIS.

The titles are fascinating and even creative, often reflecting more specific areas of interest. Some classes offered this semester included Native American Pop Culture, Alien Worlds and Selves, Selfies and Society, to name a few.

“Another thing I like with the way it’s listed on Lou’s List and SIS is the titles,” Gieser said. “They’re really interesting titles compared to the main, generic class titles because they are more focused topics than some of the intro level classes, so that’s something that always grabs my attention.”

LaRose said she’s looking at taking another new class next semester, the title of which played a role in her decision to take it.

“It’s a religion class … and it’s called ‘A Life Worth Living,’” LaRose said. “So titles like that kind of catch my attention and make me want to see what it’s about.”

New courses are one-time classes often with captivating titles. The distinct names are a reflection of how these classes typically come about — a professor is inspired.

Testing a new class idea

Professors who have an idea for a class and would like to test the topic out before going through the process of making it a permanent class, can fill out the necessary paperwork to propose a new course and submit their proposal to faculty within their department. The proposal then undergoes an expedited approval process. New courses that are approved are tagged with a 559 course number.

New courses are often inspired by current events or the professor’s own research.

Assoc. Environmental Science Prof. Stephan De Wekker described the process of creating a new class as complex and personal. This semester he is teaching EVSC 4559 — “Drones in Research and Society.”

“There’s a lot of different things that go into deciding what new course to teach, but I think I’ve been using drones for my research for a couple of years now, and I thought it would be interesting to share some of that knowledge with students and also for me to learn more about drones,” De Wekker said.

De Wekker envisioned his new class as having a symbiotic purpose — to share his knowledge about drones with his students and to expand upon his own knowledge as a researcher in the process.

“I thought it would be good on one hand to share my experience with using drones and what it all takes to use drones for research, and then on the other hand to see it as an opportunity for myself, to broaden my knowledge about drones in research and society and more general terms,” De Wekker said.

Biology Prof. Michael Menaker similarly developed the idea for his current new course entitled “Darwinian Medicine” from personal research and interests. He was inspired by two books he read entitled ‘Why We Get Sick’ and ‘Genes, Blood, and Courage: A Boy Called Immortal Sword.’ The former introduced the idea of a connection between evolution, natural selection and disease in humans while the latter was a case study on a boy diagnosed with the inherited blood disease thalassemia.

“Reading those two books made me think that this would be an interesting subject,” De Wekker said. “Essentially [I] was looking to teach a class for first-year students and I thought this would engage people’s interests and students could learn some science from taking that course even though they might not be science majors.”

Both Menaker and De Wekker intend on making their course a permanent offering in the College.

Menaker pointed toward feedback from his students as a factor he considers when deciding whether to make a class permanent. For his current class, the responses seem generally positive.

“I’d be really interested to see what the students say when they do evaluations, but they seem to be enjoying it and we have very lively discussions,” Menaker said.

De Wekker said the preparation and research that goes into proposing the idea for a new class is a strong incentive to make it permanent.

“There’s quite some effort in going through the preparations the first time around. I spent a lot of time reading up on papers and trying to find background information,” De Wekker said. “You invest a lot of time in this course and then it’s nice if you can reuse the material.”

Making new classes permanent

If a faculty member is happy with the outcome of their test “New Course,” they may pursue making it a permanent class and adding it to the official SIS course catalog under a course number no longer ending in 559.

The process of making a class permanent is a lot more intensive, however, involving more paperwork and rounds of approval.

Assoc. Religious Studies Prof. and Asst. Dean Mark Hadley said the process begins when faculty members submit course ideas to their department or program for approval.

The department then submits the syllabus and official University Registrar course creation form to the College’s Committee on Educational Policy and Curriculum, Hadley said.

“The CEPC periodically reviews new course proposals, and sends their recommendations to the College of Arts and Sciences Faculty, which the College Faculty vote on at their period[ic] meetings," Hadley said in an email to The Cavalier Daily.

When a course is approved and added to the course catalog as a permanent offering at the University, it will not necessarily be taught every year. Professors can decide when they would like to teach a permanent course again.

“Typically I would want to make [a new course] a more permanent course,” De Wekker said. “Not a course that I would necessarily teach every year but maybe every other year or every few years or so. At least it’s in the books then and it has a number.”

The process of creating a new, permanent course may be tedious and time-consuming for faculty, but the additions help keep University classes relevant.

“It’s a topic that is very actual at the moment, there are a lot of things going on on drones,” De Wekker said. “I think it will be interesting to watch this again in a year or two or so, so I think to have it as a permanent course would be good.”

Menaker also noted the strong potential of new courses, especially when inspired by recent events or modern ideas.

“It increases the relevance of courses if they are designed to fit in in some way with what’s going on in the world,” Menaker said.

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