Intensive courses

I am teaching a summer course at the moment (a 200-level course, Introduction to Moral Theory), and I have been impressed with the level of enthusiasm and engagement there is amongst the majority of the 30 or so students in the course, as well as with their philosophical insights.  I’ve been wondering why there should be so many more students who are really engaged and saying interesting things in a summer course than in the regular-term version of the same course (which I’ve taught many times).  Most likely, it has to do with the type of students who sign up for summer courses in the first place, since the major difference here is that this course is during a time when most students do not take courses, only a select few.  Why those few should be different in this regard, I can only speculate (as I am speculating in general that what I’ve seen this once might be a pattern of some kind!).

But I also wonder if there might be more to it than this, given my similar experience with a course that is also time-intensive, Arts One. This course has one, two-hour lecture per week, two 75-minute seminars per week, and 1 tutorial per week (where students meet in groups of 4 with the prof to do peer review of each others’ papers).  We read one book-length manuscript or several articles per week.  There is a lot of reading, and a lot of writing:  a 1500-2000 word paper every two weeks. Similar to my summer course in moral theory, I find more students in this course to be, usually, more engaged and philosophically insightful than the majority of students in my other courses.  Now, this may be a selection effect too:  what sort of student chooses such an intensive course to begin with?  Or, there may be something about the nature of the sort of study that goes into such courses that brings out better thinking.

In Arts One and summer courses, there is a lot of reading and writing that must be done in a short time.  Usually, students aren’t taking too many other courses at the same time (most summer students take only one or two courses at a time, from what I can tell by anecdotal evidence, and most Arts One students take two other courses in addition to Arts One (Arts One is a year long)).  Thus, a lot of time and attention is focused on one area of study, one particular text, rather than one’s energies and attention being pulled in various directions at once (well, there are still other things that pull one away from the intensive courses, but they may be fewer if one is not taking so many other courses at the same time).  And the fact that these courses meet for so long, or have many meetings per week, can contribute to the extended focus on a single theme.  I doubt I’m alone in finding that I work much better if I devote an extended period of time to an academic task rather than breaking it up into smaller chunks of time, even if the total time works out to be the same.

For the summer course, which meets twice a week, 3 hours each time, this means quite a long time spent on a single text continuously, rather than breaking it up into smaller chunks (there is of course a break in that 3 hours, though!).  For Arts One, there is a two-hour lecture (with a break) rather than one hour, and then two extended seminars (75 minutes each) to discuss each text for each week.  The students get more credit for this course than a “regular” course of 3-4 credits per term (18 credits for the year).  Perhaps this more extended time spent continuously rather than the same amount of time in smaller bits helps to focus students’ attention and interest.  This is clearly just a speculation at this point, as I have no evidence to support it.

Graduate seminars, in my experience in North America, often take the format of meeting for an extended time period once a week.  As such seminars are also largely focused on student discussion and presentations, this clearly leads to more onus on the student to do a lot of the work outside of class in the many days between class meetings.  Further, much more in-depth conversations can be had over the course of 3 hours than during 3 one-hour meetings (or even 2 75-minute meetings).

All of this is leading me to wonder a few things:

1.  Why and how did we end up with a system where it is commonplace for students to take many courses at the same time, dividing their energies between those (and the rest of their daily lives) in a way that must lead to some fragmentation of their engagement in each of them?

2.  What purpose/whose interests does this way of doing things currently serve?

3.  Why not have a system where it’s more common to take fewer courses at once that are more intensive?