Rethinking the Survey Course

Editors’ Note: In the coming months, the German Studies Collaboratory will publish a series of blogs related to teaching and pedagogy. We’ll begin with some contributions recapping discussions at the 2022 German Studies Association conference in Houston, the first of which is about a GSA Teaching Network roundtable about “Rethinking the Survey Course.”

At the German Studies Association annual conference in September 2022, the GSA Teaching Network organized a roundtable that asked participants to share their experiences and/or frustrations with survey courses. Traditionally, survey courses have aimed to give a broad overview or serve as an introduction to a field of study. They have also been used to try to attract students into our programs to pursue a major or minor. However, the current academic climate of shrinking enrollments and tightening budgets has forced many programs to radically alter these approaches. We discussed questions such as: What do survey courses have to offer for German Studies and related fields today? How do they need to be (re)designed to sustain and help grow and/or maintain programs? How can the survey course be more open and inviting, and reflect the changes in the field and the academy? Or does German Studies need to move beyond the survey all together? 

During our two-hour session, participants representing diverse types of institutions (from small liberal arts colleges to R1 public universities) and academic ranks (from instructors to pre-tenure to tenured colleagues) gave informal ten-minute presentations, followed by an extended conversation among all participants. Our presenters were Tiffany Florvil (History, University of New Mexico), Bethany Morgan (German, Iowa State University), Francien Markx (German, George Mason University), Julia Bruggemann (History, DePauw University), and Evan Torner (German Studies & Film and Media Studies, University of Cincinnati). In this blog, we’d like to focus on some salient points brought up in the lively discussion that ensued after the short initial presentations.

First, a common thread during the discussion was how we as educators can connect (and reconnect post-Covid) the material we teach to our students’ environments, backgrounds, and lived experiences. Building those bridges and making strong connections is really at the heart of what we do. To that end, the setup and structure of our courses can play a big role in their success, whether they are traditional survey courses or not. Some strategies for community building included brief survey questionnaires at the beginning of class that count towards participation, or having assignments that relate to the particular university or city students are in.  Some participants and audience members still found value in the more traditional survey course that seeks to offer breadth of knowledge and “a way in” to our programs, while others questioned that approach and the premise that students “want in” at all. On the one hand, survey courses give a broad overview of the field; on the other hand, it is debatable how much students retain from such courses vis-a-vis courses with a narrower focus and in-depth analysis. 

Second, creating a learning community is also related to the question of how we can best engage our students to achieve the most favorable learning outcomes. Innovative ideas are needed, and those can be applied in survey courses as much as in topics courses. Consider for example, the clear articulation of humanities skills and how they will be achieved in a given course, creative writing assignments that challenge students to apply the learned material, or avatar projects. We can also support our students by being flexible with deadlines, for example with a “stuff-happens-clause” (Tiffany Florvil) that allows each student a number of exceptions to due dates. 

In rethinking the survey course, however, the question of language was different for those in German Studies and those in other fields, such as history. While historians are able to design courses with a wider appeal because they are taught in English, German programs must make the difficult decision between offering a course that is in German and serves German majors and minors or offering a course in English that might have a wider appeal, but may not be as attractive to German students.  

In the end, there does not seem to be a one-size-fits-all approach to curricula or individual courses that can satisfy the needs of our disparate programs and the diverse profiles and career goals for students. Many colleagues see advantages in the traditional ‘survey’ with its focus on breadth and fulfillment of liberal arts ideals; others find this broad model outdated, given the growing pressures from declining enrollments and rapidly changing pedagogical approaches and modes of learning. Despite these differences, it became clear that an ongoing conversation and active exchange of ideas among scholars is a benefit to all. The Teaching Network therefore looks forward to continuing these conversations.

Kristopher Imbrigotta, University of Puget Sound

Karolina May-Chu, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee