Adventures in New (History) Course Design

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I’m excited this fall to be co-designing a team-taught, cross-discipline experimental course. Wow! That is a mouthful!

Since transfer agreements are such an integral part of our curriculum at a community college, the opportunity to create a new course comes infrequently and with numerous challenges. This week I’ll share my experience with the early stages of this process from the history side of the course in hopes that Macmillan Community members will chime in with ideas and suggestions.


The idea for our new, as yet unnamed, course came about before the recent pandemic began. Several years ago, a colleague in the Biology Department expressed interest in my US history students’ study of the 1918 Influenza outbreak. Wouldn’t it be great, we concluded, to have a course that linked biological crises with their historical origins and context? Both of us were busy with our 5-5 teaching load, so we filed the idea away until spring 2020 when the COVID-19 Pandemic hit the United States. Amidst the chaos of moving all of our courses online, we knew we needed to revisit our idea. Students were asking questions that required complex and thoughtful answers: had this kind of crisis happened before? When? Why? How did previous generations respond? 


As excited as we both were about the idea of creating such a course, reality took the reins. Where would this course be housed at our community college and how would it transfer? As much as we wanted to dive right in and think about the curriculum, we had to stop and first consider logistics. I started the conversation with my department chair who suggested at least a dozen more questions we had not considered, including the hurdles that would be necessary to clear our course on an experimental basis (two semesters) with the college’s Curriculum Review Committee. Undeterred, we continued to ask colleagues for advice and to gather materials we believe will be useful material in the course.


Our vice president for Academic Affairs suggested that we start the process by working with the department whose students would benefit most directly from the development of such a course. At our college, nursing students are required to take just one course in the Humanities or Social Sciences. Generally the students take whatever course best fits their schedule because none of the classes are designed to specifically enhance the nursing curriculum. Here, it seems, we have found our stride. As we move forward with the course design process it is with the intent of providing nursing and other health sciences students with a course that better connects their fields to history while maintaining a significant degree of scientific learning as well. We are hopeful that by studying history and biology together, health care students will recognize the interconnectedness of those seemingly distinct fields. We hope, too, that we can help our college to increase offerings in courses on public health, which seem particularly valuable in current times.


Now that we are in the planning process, I would love to hear from anyone who has co-designed/taught a course that covered two distinct disciplines. What unexpected challenges did you face? Please share! 

About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.