Aside: What’s With Hating On Survey Courses?

#ShitSeniorFacultySays: “We MUST get more majors! But how?!?!??”

#ShitSeniorFacultyAlsoSays: “Me, teach the survey course? You MUST be joking. Get an adjunct to do it.”


So. Semi-related Q based on the excellent comment thread from the post below this one:

Am I the only person who actually likes teaching survey courses? I even kind of love teaching survey courses (as long as the pay is OK). Like, I see it as a privilege to get to share just a tiny dip of all the things I love the most with people who will never get a chance to know those things otherwise. I like to take their little moment in my world and just jump down that moment’s throat.

For 100% serious, I would be happy teaching nothing but survey courses for the rest of my life. Why all the hating on survey courses, and why all the privileging of upper-division major courses?

Why are survey courses seen as a punishment worthy of only adjuncts or unlucky junior TT faculty at a school that is still decent enough to employ mostly TT faculty? I think I know the answer to this, but I want to leave it open for discussion. I’ve talked about this before: Survey courses are the public face of every department. They are every department’s chance to reach as many students as possible. They are the first and often last impression of that department in the wider university. And they matter. And they can–and are often–interesting and fun. And to do them right, they’re not even “easy.” So why, again, the survey-course scorn?

27 thoughts on “Aside: What’s With Hating On Survey Courses?

  1. I’m totally with you! If I could teach nothing but entry-level/survey courses for the rest of my life, I’d be a happy person. I actually LOVE (like, genuinely love) teaching freshman writing classes, and I also think teaching Intro to Cognitive Science or Intro to Linguistics (those being my areas of expertise and topics that bring me joy) is just about the best thing ever. I taught an upper-division language acquisition class last semester in addition to my writing class, and it was fine, but I don’t know…nothing really compares to introducing a bunch of newbies to the stuff I love.


  2. I enjoy teaching the intro to chemistry classes. First semester freshmen are their own species. Although I complain about them, they have endearing qualities. Most do not continue studying chemistry after they fulfill their science requirement so I get to tell them as much as I can about the wonderful realm of chemistry (which includes everything in the universe btw). Yes, the freshmen can be lazy and stupid but most figure out which way is up by the end of the semester. It’s fun to observe that process.

    Senior classes are fun to teach also but for entirely different reasons. I can challenge the seniors without making them cry. Still, for my money, teaching the freshmen is too much fun to pass up.


    • RIGHT? I love a Monday morning class, so you can be like, “Am I your FIRST EXPERIENCE OF COLLEGE? Oh, I AM? MUAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAAHAAAAAAAAAA”

      And Ben, I’d be willing to bet that a few students who had no intention of taking more chemistry took more chemistry after they had you…


      • Yeah, my first semester teaching at one school I got assigned two freshman-only sections of a required course. I was later surprised to learn that my impression of the students there (in terms of motivation, study habits, etc) were much higher than that of some veteran teachers there. In retrospect, I attribute it to the ‘first semester at college’ effect – you have a lot of power to set students’ expectations for what college learning should be like (though I can’t say how long the effect lasts).


  3. Ditto!! Have always loved survey courses–both as student and teacher. Teaching surveys really allow me to revisit, engage with, modify and expand for my students the “standard narratives” we were all taught in our fields. Honestly? I’d rather NOT teach a graduate seminar and would LOVE to never have to oversee a dissertation project (I have enough with my own research and writing But guess what? My wish is fulfilled since I’m likely never to teach a college course again. *sarcastic sad wink here*


  4. Academic intellectual snobbery at is f***ing worst.
    It really frustrates me, this attitude of “oh you, young freshman, don’t know everything there is to know about XYZ yet, and thusly my expansive genius is lost on you (and more importantly this ignorance causes you to not know what kind of a Hoheit of the Field I am).”

    Survey courses were the entire reason plenty of people fell in love with university [I want to learn ALL THE THINGS] in the first place – why wouldn’t we want a hand in that experience again?


  5. I’ve never taught the straight up 101 course in my department but I have a couple of senior colleagues who in the past really liked to do it and were specifically discouraged from it; I like doing the 200 level survey directly after it because yeah, it’s like playing the greatest hits of the field for an audience that is hearing them for the first time!

    I wonder if actually in many places the “disdain” for lower level courses isn’t an artefact rather than a cause of adjunctification? I mean, as universities shifted to adjuncts, but also kept producing the same or greater numbers of PhDs, the “official story” became about stratification of expertise and excellence and etc. so that the proliferation of adjunct teaching would seem like part of the natural order of things (lesser beings teach the lower levels, higher beings teach the upper levels). In one case in my department about which I know the chair insisted a senior dude teach a teeny tiny upper level grad class because that was the “most appropriate” use of his time when he had offered to take a section of 101.

    After a while, of course, the imputation of stigma actually is stigmatizing, so that if teaching lower level courses is perceived to be punishment or whatever socially it functions that way (“oh, your chair must hate you”).


    • In the larger universities where I worked in the 80s and 90s, the survey course was LARGE. And that meant more grading and more management of the TAs (who, let’s face it, did the bulk of the grading). So, I would say that yes, the survey course now often has the adunctification taint, but it wasn’t always the case. Back then, in my opinion, it was also about the large class/grading/management issues I mentioned AND the fact that if you taught the large survey/service course, you often got pigeon-holed into doing it FORever, to the exclusion of other things that you wanted to teach. Faculty where I worked were *very* mindful of these things.


  6. Why do departments assume that historical surveys are the best introduction to a literary discipline? If it were up to me, I’d suck intro students and non-majors in with a thematic course: “Twenty-five Mind-Blowing Poems, Stories, and Plays about Love” (or Money, or Politics, or God…and of course the title would be less honest and more academic-y, but you get the idea). Historical surveys would be reserved for juniors and seniors with some courses under their belts and a growing hunger to understand how all the bits and pieces they’ve learned fit together.


  7. I used to hate the survey, because of the way I taught it– which is to say the way the profs that I TA’d for in grad school taught it– and the predictable results that ensued. Once I got tired of diminishing returns, and redesigned the course to reflect who *I* am as a teacher, it’s become my favorite, for all the reasons you’ve given here. As a former department chair, I can tell you that I’d like to throat-punch that senior faculty member (for a lot of reasons, but survey-disdain is a big one).


  8. I LOVE INTRO/SURVEY COURSES. Two of my favorite things to teach EVAR are the “bridge” language course that is like “literature light” and intro linguistics. In intro lx, I let them pick an area of interest to them: language and policy, language and education, language contact, language acquisition, sociolinguistics, etc. and let them run with it for their final project. Those papers are so incredibly awesome to read, and I just love geeking out with them about all the different ways you can study linguistics. I love the bridge language courses for similar reasons–they are just now advanced enough to be able to read short literary pieces and dive deeply into them, AND we can talk about all the grammar nerd stuff that makes me so happy, AND I can inject linguistics in there. So fun. Of course, I do love language classes, too. They’re just a different kind of fun. 🙂


  9. Loved teaching them, but getting to do so only two or three times in my seven years as a full-time NTT wasn’t enough. Teaching nothing but language classes wore me out. Teaching survey courses would have kept me in the classroom longer. Officially resigned so I can focus on my area and not only on language teaching.


  10. Interestingly enough former colleagues used to love teaching survey courses. Not because of any of the reasons other have mentioned here (which reflect why I like teaching them) – but because, since TAs had sections for one of the days, the faculty member taught less. Now I teach someplace where it is a privilege to teach large survey courses (the logic: you have to know your stuff well enough to be able to teach a survey on it) and though I do not have TAs and thus teach all my own hours … I love my large survey course. I think I learn at least as much as my students do, too, for the record, every semester.


  11. I am a TT Assistant prof and I love teaching the 200 level survey in my field. It’s the course that hooked me on my field and I love sharing that. I haven’t yet taught the 100-level class and I’m not sure how I feel about doing it, in part because we have full-time, tenured lecturers whose research is in pedagogy and this seems important to me to have teaching experts at that level helping students who are transitioning from high school to university. Some of the top research faculty in my dept teach the HUGE (>1000) 100-level intro course and choose to do so for similar reasons to why I love the 200-level course. These are the courses that inspire students to love this field. They get a lot of admin help with the course – 1000+ students and classes with labs absolutely need that and I’m sure without that they wouldn’t teach those classes but it’ still a lot of work. I’m at a top 20 ranked research university. Is this a difference between the sciences (my field) and the humanities? No one in my department only teaches grad seminars and most of us contribute to teaching a undergrad classes across a range of levels. It’s not that we never complain about teaching (argh grading! I complain a lot about grading!) but we know it’s a core part of our job and act like it.


  12. Count me in the “loves teaching the survey” club.

    Two stories, though: first, at my first grad school (giant state school churning out hundreds of undergrad music majors), not only were the basic level classes (surveys and skills courses) not taught by higher level professors, but they were almost entirely taught by doctoral and master’s students. (Doctoral for lecture, Master’s as TAs). Even private lessons in their MAJOR field–half the freshmen and sophomores had to study their major instrument/voice with grad students until they were deemed worthy to rate an actual professor. I think it’s improved since then, but it was a complete travesty. (The graduate history review course, on the other hand, was taught by an ancient faculty member whose lecture notes were visibly yellowed with age. It was a nightmare.) The students who most needed good teaching either lucked out and got inexperienced naturally good teachers or drew people who couldn’t care less about teaching and just needed the assistantship money. The adjunctification of the survey course sucks, to be sure, but it would have been an improvement over this place.

    Second: in my current finishing-my-doctorate school: all the doctoral students are supposed to take a music theory analysis survey course, supposedly to help them prepare for comps. Because they are doctoral students, the course must be taught by full faculty, or at least graduated PhD/DMAs. NO ONE on the faculty would teach it. So it…didn’t happen. The doctoral curriculum was essentially revised simply because the entire theory faculty refused to teach it. (In this case, I get it; it was a stupid course and one which any doctoral student worth their salt could have passed on the first day of class, but still…)

    Systemic change is the hardest, isn’t it? 😦


  13. I’ve taught 200 freshmen and 25 seniors. I was surprised to find that both took the same amount of time. All the Seiors visit office hours all the time but only 5% of freshers do. Prep time was the same. I prepped fun demos for the intro class and made sure I knew all the details of my lecture for the advanced class (seniors asked really good questions). That is to say that I do not understand why faculty claim that teaching the big intro class takes too much of their time.

    Besides, it is easy to teach stuff to students who already know stuff. Try getting students to learn despite their best efforts.


    • I notice that you don’t mention grading. If anything, grading for the survey class should take longer (at least if it’s in a discipline with essays or essay-style exams), since the students will need more feedback.

      Even if you have TAs, doesn’t managing them require more time to teach them how to grade effectively?

      Other than variety, class size would seem to be the most significant down side of survey courses.


  14. Granted, I’ve never taught, but I audited the big intro course for my major a couple years after I’d taken it myself, and if I were to teach anything I think that course would be so much fun. When you introduce students to a discipline, you’re not just adding to their store of knowledge/skills, you’re potentially completely transforming the way they look at the world. At least that’s how it was for me. And sometimes the intro students ask really brilliant questions with such genuine innocence and NO IDEA how brilliant their questions are! It’s so exciting! (I’ve tutored remedial freshman comp before, so I’m not completely starry-eyed and naive about students. But when it goes well it can be great in ways it tends not to be with upper-div students, I think.)


  15. @Derek – Grading is an important point. You are right that one needs at least some time to work with TAs to help make sure everyone is on the same page grading, no matter how much experience they already have. Still, part of having TAs is also training them into the (non)profession. I actually always did part of my own grading (for a class of 150 maybe 25 a week) and had the TAs rotate those through me so that I saw everyone’s work at least once. For midterms and finals, I took my “fair share” (1/3 if I had 2 TAs), asked them what they wanted for dinner (usually pizza or burgers) and I ordered out and we had a major grading fest.
    I always enjoyed the grading I did for these glasses, since I got to see what students were getting out of my classes. Now that I do all my own grading (doesn’t fall into the purview of our tutors’ responsibilities, and I know that contingent faculty often don’t always get to have TAs – another problem there), I still enjoy grading survey essays at least as much as grad student papers. So yes to more time, but also yes to it being time that I usually enjoy and find satisfying and feels like part of the teaching process that has me in the profession still. I have as many aha moments as my students do when I read their work.


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