I'm offering an elective course on gender and the law this Spring at Ramapo College.
It's nice when your job and your interests coincide, so it's especially sweet to be teaching this course. The course will examine the law's role in regulating sex, gender and sexuality, the role of gendered social differences in the social and justice systems, and the intersection of gender with other bases of social stratification, such as race, class, disability and sexual orientation. Should have some interesting controversies in that class. I hope to share some of them with our readers here at Bilerico.
But what's equally interesting is that the course is right in the middle of another controversy. It's going to be an online course, and academia is aboil with controversy about the benefits and detriments of online classes. There was an article in the New York Times the other day on this very subject. The Grey Lady was not amused, not amused at all.
"When I look back, I think it took away from my freshman year," said Kaitlyn Hartsock, a senior psychology major at [University of] Florida who was assigned to two online classes during her first semester in Gainesville. "My mom was really upset about it. She felt like she's paying for me to go to college and not sit at home and watch through a computer."
Ouch. Is mom right? After all, college ain't cheap, and if you're paying through the nose for bricks and mortar, you don't want college lite.
This may delight undergraduates who do not have to change out of pajamas to "attend" class. But it also raises questions that go to the core of a college's mission: Is it possible to learn as much when your professor is a mass of pixels whom you never meet? How much of a student's education and growth -- academic and personal -- depends on face-to-face contact with instructors and fellow students?
The Times has a point. I've taught online classes several times before, usually during the summer in a shortened format. The concern about online courses is that the teacher often does not interact in real time with the students at any point. That makes an online course similar to a correspondence course, where they give you a list of books, and you mail in your exams. If most people could really learn that way, we wouldn't really need colleges, just a list of Great Books. The truth is that learning is hard, and most people can't read and absorb information. They have to be prompted. And every class dynamic is different. The same course taught to a group of different people is totally different. Teachers must constantly assess whether the students are getting it. Student interaction with each other is also important, because studies show that the peer process motivates learning in a way that teacher-student interactions can't. So a poorly done online class is nothing more than a correspondence course.
Well, New York Times, my class sure isn't going to be just a bunch of pixels. You wouldn't believe the amount of time that goes into structuring one of these online courses, when done right.
First of all, the book we're using is incredibly good. It's "Sexuality, Gender and the Law," by Yale law professor Bill Eskridge and Georgetown law professor Nan Hunter. It's a few years old, and it's the abridged edition (but still 600 pages long -- you should see the regular casebook edition!). But there's nothing like it on the market, and it's so well written. I love this sentence from the preface:
As an area of study, sexuality, gender and the law is often thought to be marginal to "core" law. We believe that such a view is wrong today and will become only more wrong in the future. No one disputes that the field has grown to be vast...But the field is more than big; it is central.
I couldn't agree more. It's at the center of a lot of controversies, and, frankly, gender is one of the basic ways in which we define the world. If that ain't central, I don't know what is.
The book is kinda awful on trans issues, and the index (which the authors probably had nothing to do with) lists only "transvestism," leaving out transsexual and transgender entirely. But never fear, it's me teaching the course, and the book provides a great framework for discussing gender and gender identity. Trust me, I will be providing additional readings, and not only on that. This whole area of law is exploding. (By the way, that's what professors are doing when they're not in the classroom or grading papers. They're boning up on the latest in the field. That's more important, in some ways, than the teaching. I mean, anyone can read out of a textbook and ask a few good questions to spark discussion. But how many really know what they're talking about?)
The other thing the book isn't designed to do that well is to provide information about the liberal arts aspect of all these issues. The authors go much farther than most similar law textbooks in providing snippets of readings from social science and humanities authors, so they definitely deserve kudos for that. But since I teach undergraduates, and not law school students, it is incumbent on me to provide a broader social science and humanities context to all of this. For example, we really need to include the history of women's rights, and the historical development of seminal concepts of "sex," "gender," "sexuality," and "sexual orientation."
The way the course works is that you read a section from the book, as well as some readings online, and you get some questions to answer as you go along in the reading. Then you watch and listen to video and audio lectures from me, discussing the meaning of the readings, as well as providing critiques and other viewpoints. Then you take an online multiple-choice quiz to assess how well you understand. Then you find a recent newspaper article or online video that relates to the readings, and post it online in our discussion group, explaining how it's relevant and interesting. There are telephone conference calls, prior to which each student must submit questions about the issues raised by the course, and wherein we have a discussion about how all this relates to real life. I'm also available for individual discussions as well.
After 7 weeks of this, there's a midterm multiple-choice exam. A paper is also due at this time, in which the students come up with a thesis about law and gender, and justify it using the class readings and some outside sources. There's also an experiential component, in which students have to do original research on the interaction of gender and the law, using interviews, participant-observation and/or survey administration. At the end of the course, there's a final multiple-choice exam, and a final thesis paper.
It's sure going to be an interesting course. At least I think so.
But I'm still worried about that Times article. Can students really learn in an online format? I believe they can, if proper techniques for online engagement are used.
Anyway, it was either go online, or cancel the course. I really didn't have much of a choice. The course has been very popular in the past, but I made the mistake of originally scheduling it 3:45-5:15 Tuesdays and Fridays. The Administration, which is trying to utilize classroom space more efficiently, has been trying to getting us to schedule courses at these times, noting that the corridors of Ramapo are like a ghost town on Friday afternoons. I kind of felt like we "lazy" professors ought to try to help out. So I scheduled the course then, instead of the slot I used in the past, Wednesdays 3:00-6:15.
What I didn't realize was that the reason profs don't schedule classes for Tues/Fri 3:45-5:15 isn't because they want to get out early on Fridays. It's because students want to get out early on Fridays.
In a class that usually has 30 students, I've got 4 enrolled. That means the class would ordinarily be cancelled.
So I'm nixing the Tues/Fri schedule, and offering the course totally online, and hope people will enroll. I don't know whether that will help, but I sure hope so. It would be a shame to cancel this course, which won't be offered again for another two years.
If you have any suggestions for readings or videos for the course, let me know. I'll let you know how it goes! And I think I can open up some discussion forums for guests. Wouldn't it be cool to invite Bilerico readers to interact with college students on this topic? (In a monitored forum, of course. Some of us can be a bit much.)
If you're interested in taking the course for college credit, it's Women, Gender and the Law, LAWS 341. I think it costs like $1000 as an individual class. If you don't care about college credit, you can audit for $150.