When news broke of the Margory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting on Valentine’s Day 2018, students and faculty at the small liberal arts college where I taught at the time were catapulted out of the pastoral slumber and relative safety of our tiny rural campus and into the morass of public and political discourse on gun rights and regulation, asking questions like “Could that happen here?,” “Why doesn’t anyone do anything about this?,” and “What can I do about this?” In short, it was a prime opportunity not only for learning but also for teaching forward to important action. Too bad the course schedule for the next year was already set.
But did it have to be? My main teaching area is ethics, so it’s always easy for me to incorporate current affairs into my classes. I also appreciate the value of spontaneity and am comfortable switching gears to engage student and faculty interests at the spur of the moment. But most students and faculty don’t have the privilege of taking or teaching an ethics class in any given semester. And while we can (and should) litter non-credit-bearing cocurricular town hall meetings, expert panels, and debates throughout a student’s time with us, why not offer credit for what could be the most meaningful educational experience a student will have? If it’s that important, we should add every incentive at our disposal to the mix.
Enter pop-up courses. These courses are typically one or two credits (or even a half credit), short term, and highly topical. While some institutions require that they be made available via the usual registration schedule, others allow faculty, or even students, to propose and offer pop-up courses in the same semester, sometimes even within the same couple of weeks. Some, such as at the University of Connecticut, are offered asynchronously and MOOC-style (UConn’s largest pop-up course enrolled over 4,000 students), others are high contact and intensive, occurring in person over a weekend or within a couple of weeks, such as at Bennington College. The common theme is that pop-ups are immediately responsive to current events and are experiential, experimental, and interdisciplinary (Ellin, 2018).
At my former college, within days of the Parkland massacre, several faculty members and a supportive dean had drafted a proposal for pop-up courses, including considerations for budget, registration, faculty workload, and a cap (six credits) on how many pop-ups a student could count toward graduation. Though we knew it would be difficult to regulate course quality, rigor, and other such institutional concerns, we also knew the potential value of innovative, outward-facing courses, and we worked hard to avoid the perfectionist’s fallacy. Within a week or two, the faculty council had approved a pilot. And within a few weeks, we offered our first pop-up course: #NeverAgain or #2A? Guns, Control, and Culture.
One of the benefits of occasionally going rogue with the curriculum is that some of the usual considerations give way to innovation. We didn’t waste time arguing about who would get credit for team teaching (the dean approved faculty banking a small number of credits for pop-up courses); whether or how much students would have to pay (as long as it was inside their 19 credit limit, we didn’t mess with fees); or whether we would burden an already overworked curriculum committee (pop-ups fell under the handy designation of “special topics”). Instead, two colleagues (psychology and natural resource management) and I (philosophy) put all of our effort into planning an important experience for students and ourselves.
The course we ended up with was a two-week, one-credit, three-professor, multiple-guest-speaker, transdisciplinary active learning experience. Students contributed equally with faculty in designing the syllabus and assessments and weighed in on the content. Faculty considered multiple perspectives on gun culture and control from each of our three areas (social psychology, hunting and wildlife ecology, and ethics). Our guest speakers included, on separate visits, a state legislator (himself a hunter) who believed in tight restrictions on firearms and a deeply conservative Second Amendment activist. Students gained skills in lightning presentations, debates, professional writing, information literacy, critical thinking, and teamwork; they also exhibited dispositions to care about current issues and empathize with others’ viewpoints. We all learned about firearms laws and history and even got to see firsthand the kind of weapon used at Parkland. Students finished the two-week intensive with policy proposals that we sent to our state representative. The class was collegial and supportive and, despite the heavy topic, invigorating and highly social.
For students and faculty, the class was a great success for creating what the philosopher John Dewey might call a “consummatory” experience and with what bell hooks and Paolo Freire might conceptualize as liberatory moments of learning via empathy and impassioned but reasoned debate. It was also successful in exemplifying what these small courses could be. While our more established curriculum is important in giving students a foundation in content knowledge and the skills they need in careers and communities, pop-ups and other innovative pedagogies give them experience in tackling wicked problems as they happen, like climate change, political polarization and the erosion of democracy, and inequality. Paul Hanstedt (2018) notes the importance to learning of creating the circumstances by which students themselves become the experts, and the engaging and experimental nature of pop-up courses affords students the authority, as Hanstedt states, to be problem solvers and critical thinkers. Putting students to work on the problems of our time (and even course design on wicked problems) is good for our future and good for our students.
Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience. Perigee Books.
Ellin, A. (2018, April 5). Pop-ups offer classes on today’s hot topics. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/05/education/learning/pop-ups-offer-classes-on-todays-hot-topics.html
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Continuum.
Hanstedt, P. (2018). Creating wicked students: Designing courses for a complex world. Stylus.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to transgress: Education as the practice of freedom. Routledge.
Heather Keith, PhD, is the executive director of faculty development and a professor of philosophy at Radford University.