Why We Need a Teaching Collaboratory

August 19, 2020

The demands on college professors for curricular development are extreme. Having held positions at both a small liberal arts college with a unique instructional plan, as well as a large state university where we have multiple faculty in German Studies who can divide labor, what is clear to me is that university and college administrators underestimate the effort required for quality curricular design. 

Over the three years that I held a Visiting Assistant Professor (VAP) position at a small liberal arts college, I designed sixteen courses. These included all levels of the language program as well as eight 300-level courses designed for majors and minors in German Studies. The sheer quantity of new curriculum development pushed me to the breaking point in terms of workload — and required so much input that I began to resent teaching. Thankfully, this emotional experience was short lived. I really enjoy the dynamism of a classroom and being in conversation with young people. Although my first couple of years in a tenure-track position also required significant curricular development, that pressure was not as constant as it had been at a teaching institution, mostly because I was finally able to repeat and refine courses. 

During that period when I was creating so many different curricular tools, I tried to set up a Google drive for other faculty in German Studies to exchange assignments. Like most individual efforts, it was unsuccessful because it lacked the team structure and institutional apparatus that now supports the German Studies Collaboratory. I am thrilled that this kind of resource has successfully gotten off the ground, and I encourage faculty at all ranks and from all kinds of institutions to add materials — both as a form of knowledge exchange, and also as a way to support those colleagues who are in the most precarious academic positions: visiting instructors; non-tenure-track (or contract instructors);  and junior faculty. When I think back on my first years as a professor, I don’t know how I managed. I was on the market, trying to get my first pieces of research published, teaching twenty contact hours a week (!), and developing curriculum at a pace I can no longer fathom — all while running a one-person German department on a temporary contract. I held on to my working boundaries as well as I could, but regularly worked six days a week. There is no doubt in my mind that the physical and mental demands of this amount of work cause great harm. A resource such as the Collaboratory holds the potential – in the absence of sweeping higher education reforms to the corporate university – to at least take care of our own within German Studies. 

As someone who teaches courses in both cultural studies and language acquisition, there are several types of assignments that I think we need to develop in greater quantity as a teaching community. I’ll focus on just one here: the worksheets that I call “Vokabeltrainer” — two of which are published in the Collaboratory’s Teaching Hub. I created these worksheets for advanced level courses while I was simultaneously teaching German 101 with Vorsprung: A Communicative Introduction to German Language and Culture and had the idea that the paragraph-style vocabulary building exercises for 101 students in the Vorsprung workbook used a format I could apply to the advanced courses. The exercises reminded me of the vocabulary workbooks we used in my eighth and ninth grade English classes. In these disposable workbooks from the 1990s, we built our vocabulary through matching, fill-in-the-blank and sentence-crafting exercises we completed weekly. While this market of workbooks probably was designed as a form of SAT/ACT prep, it also had positive effects on building vocabulary in the majority language. If adolescents need this kind of vocabulary building support in their primary language, there’s no good reason why we should expect students in a foreign language class to possess the skill set required to build this vocabulary in the L2 on their own. 

Especially in interdisciplinary, upper-level undergraduate courses in the German language that focus on German history or society, students need active opportunities to acquire and practice advanced vocabulary. Extant textbooks like Rankin and Wells’ Handbuch der deutschen Grammatik were another model I used to build these kinds of resources for my cultural studies courses — especially with the sheer variety of exercises featured in that book to spark ideas for additional activities. My upper-level courses tend to focus on thematic topics that require vocabulary about plants, politics or social issues — topics that a general textbook just doesn’t have the specificity to support. It’s also a very expensive text that many of my students simply can’t afford. The coursepacks I have created for my advanced German courses run about $12.00-$15.00 each and also manage the printing costs (rather than have students pay to print off each worksheet from a course management system). If we – as a teaching community – created these types of assignments at scale, we could support each other’s workloads and push costs down for our students – all the while upholding the strong pedagogical work that has long characterized German Studies.

Johanna Schuster-Craig, Michigan State University