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Dream Courses: My students write 7 course descriptions for ideal courses, and critique their teacher's attempts

Dream Courses: My students write 7 course descriptions for ideal courses, and critique their teacher's attempts


This week, I had what I almost thought was an insurmountable challenge: To create a course description for an undergraduate communications/writing course that would be elective, that is, not required for graduation. Students would sign up of their own free will to learn more about communications and writing. What sort of course could attract undergraduates who are often so glad to be done with college requirements and busy with their own major requirements that they would take another writing course?

I knew that one possible course had to be about science writing and notation, but decided to cast a wider net and simply ask my students what kind of writing course they’d take, well, recreationally at college--no arm twisting at all!

Here is the prompt I gave them in class:

Collaboratively write a course description for your ideal dream course in communications, which would be elective, e.g. not required, but so completely helpful in providing information, practice in different kinds of communication, resources, readings, activities that all students will want to take it, in fact they might stampede to sign up.

Here are some of the answers I received.


1) We think that the ideal writing course would be the kind that accepted students who have already completed a somewhat substantial project, so that they could spend a good portion of the quarter working, presenting and discussing their research with peers and an expert writing teacher. If there were some kind of advanced course to which we could bring our projects and develop these in a workshop format, that would be most valuable.


2) The perfect course, we think, would involve a few things. First, it would be interdisciplinary in the sciences and students would give a short presentation on their field of interest. Then, working in groups with their peers, the students would be assigned to a mentor in their science field who can read the difficult materials we’re writing and critique these so that we learn how to write the kind of science papers or writing we will need in our prospective fields. The following weeks would consist of spending designated time with their mentor and completing this project, which will be presented at the end of the course. Also, throughout the quarter, while students are working on their project, they could complete small mini-projects, like curriculum vitae writing, abstract writing, etc


3) We think a political speechwriting course would be extremely useful for students majoring in international relations/public policy/polisci. This class would equip them with the skills to understand the nuances in political speeches as well as learn how to better express themselves. The course would also ideally bring in speakers well versed in this arena to talk about their experiences and perhaps also include video segments of political speeches for students to analyze.


4) No one doubts Stanford's prowess at generating a pool of the most talented engineers and problem solvers. But does an engineer's skill set stop there? Companies now want more - they give the engineer a problem and send him/her down to the laboratory and expect immediate answers; they then invite him/her to a conference and expect not only a coherent and informative, but also a charismatic, almost Shakespearean presentation bound to enrapture the audience. In other words, they want engineers that excel both in and out of the lab.

This course will prepare you for the latter. You will be asked to present and speak, constantly and unexpectedly. Your assignments will include presenting scientific issues related to your field, with or without preparation. On some days, you will be called out to simply sell the class a random item, and you will be given 30 seconds to prepare. We will bring experts in your field and force you to "talk" to them. You will listen to what your professor, peers, and guest speakers have to say, and then you will be asked to summarize the conversation to the whole class. Talk, present, and listen.


5) An ideal course we think would be extremely helpful and attractive to students at Stanford University is one that teaches the oral and written parts of creating a startup, e.g. writing proposals, creating and writing up business models, researching markets, pitching ideas and products. Also, the skills of good communication, good management, and building rapport and trust with partners and employees would be very useful as well. We think the most useful part of this course would be field trips to investment firms and/or local successful startups/businesses to network. I think the skill of successful networking is the most useful not only for people interested in startups, but also for life in general. Networking opens so many doors to so many new opportunities, and I think it is an under-appreciated skill that could put one in contact with someone that could change your life forever. Many people know the benefits of successful networking, but not many people know how to make their networking attempts successful. A course that teaches this would be extremely helpful in creating this skill, not to mention the networks one would be able to create in the process.

6) We think a course that would prepare students for the kinds of writing they have to do after the university would be the best. Spending most of our lives in school, we are presented with this question: How do we take our knowledge from many years of schooling and transform it into something useful in the workforce? We also think that a communications course should provide an ethical training component to help students understand all the kinds of miscommunications, problems and potential wrong doings that can happen in writing and speaking at work.

In order to maximize the knowledge and communication skills that would be useful long-term, our course would engage the students in problem-solving during class periods through scenario-based learning. The class would be given a topic and students would be given individual roles/opinions. Putting students in on-the-spot scenario-based problems as they come into class would force them to think under limited time, scarce resource conditions, yet still be forced to come up with creative, feasible solutions under pressure. Some days students will have individual positions, while on other days student groups will have collective roles/backgrounds in the exercise. Group based challenges will force each group to be efficient and harness each group member’s maximum potential to contribute.

As a project that runs throughout the course, students will be broken up into groups to work on a major controversial dilemma. Teams would be interdisciplinary so solutions would need to encompass each person’s field. Throughout the process of negotiation among group members, students must create succinct, comprehensible memos that summarize the various positions. At the end of the course, students will present their solution to a challenge of their choosing to a panel with a wide difference in background. The panel members will challenge each group member to think on the spot as each are called out individually. Each person will be forced to defend his/her position with concrete evidence while being interpreted and constantly challenged with an opposing view.


7) We would like a course that fulfills our ethics requirement here at Stanford University. There are many Stanford offerings in specialized fields but the ethics issue that is most pressing for us is dealing with the ethics of writing in the workplace and in public. For us there are so many issues around what to write, how to write, when to write and how to deal with others in the most appropriate way. This is the kind ethics class that would be most helpful to us. We imagine looking at classic models of rhetoric and ethics throughout history say from Plato, Christ and Shakespeare to C.S. Lewis and Richard Dawkins. As we talked about it some of us have a religious understanding of ethics, but not all of us are believers, so what we would really like is an ethics of writing for a modern, professional secular workplace.



Impressed by this list I tried my hand at a few sample offerings. The students only became excited about them when I included actual technology-related readings and invitations to potential industry mentors who also had to return to listen to students present. Please see below.


Course suggestions:


1) Communicating Intelligence: A Writing Course on Big Data and Machine Learning

Mastering communications skills enables students in fields of engineering, math and computer science to adopt leadership roles, communicate rationale for decisions and become managers of projects. Such skills are ever more important in the era of big data and machine learning, as these fields slowly grant deeper insight into the nature of intelligence itself.  Some argue that soon machines will be able to write, argue and interpret as well as humans, but these machines can only preform as well as humans who know how to communicate.

This is an advanced communications course designed especially for engineering, math and computer science students. Exploring the uses of statistics in big data and machine learning, the course will discuss how statistical techniques from the fields of big data and machine learning are transforming both industry and education. Course materials blend traditional seminar style discussions and writing workshops, with data bases and web intelligence lectures offered by mathematicians and computer scientists, which we will debate in a flipped classroom. Reading will include whitepapers on R, MapReduce, Hadoop, Pig Latin and Twitter growth analytics, students will hone their academic research skills while also learning how to write industry-style white papers on topics of machine learning, big data and the problem of intelligence. Students will also practice writing everyday communications such as memos, letters, and resumes. Stanford Alumni industry members will visit the class to give talks in the first weeks and then will return to hear student presentations in the final weeks to offer suggestions and affirm their pedagogical connection to the students.


2) Communicating bioinformation: A writing course on healthcare and information science

Electronic health records have fundamentally changed the business of medicine. With increasingly large data repositories of clinical and other patient data, industry is developing new review methods for large-scale data-mining on electronic medical records. Understanding the relationship of big data to medicine and communicating this newly and complex relationship are essential skills in the healthcare profession.

This course is a communications course for student in biomedical fields who are interested in the intersection between medicine, information and patient care. Readings include research on natural language processing, text-mining of medical records, ontologies for tagging of unstructured clinical notes.  Course materials blend technology with traditional seminar style discussions, writing workshops and guest lectures. Students will learn how to write bioinformatics research projects, grants, clinical protocols and patient histories. Stanford medical school facultywill visit the class to give talks in the first weeks and then will return to hear student presentations in the final weeks to offer suggestions and affirm their pedagogical connection to the students.


3) Communicating Ethically: Social Media, The Workplace and Public Sphere

Communication in the workspace has become ever more precarious. Email is forever. Google never forgets. Facebook and other social media remember everything as well. Social media tempts even experienced writers to adopt a casual tone, while in fact most public writing demands more careful styles. Indeed, most types of communication raise both ethical and legal issues that remain difficult to distinguish. Students also confront so many cross cultural ethical issues of communication in the global digital world, that they can no longer imagine the workplace as a narrowly defined public where the communicative mores are known to all.

This course explores the increasingly challenging nature of communication in the global digital world and draws on Eastern and Western ethics texts. With an emphasis on writing and practical workplace communications, students will read short excerpts from the Vedas, Confucius, Greek virtue ethics, the Abrahamic natural law tradition, deontology and consequentialism. Course materials blend technology with traditional seminar style discussions, writing workshops as well as participation in campus conference which provide presentation opportunities, breakout sessions and networking meetings for undergraduates. Students will practice writing a variety of workplace communications including research projects, public presentations, memos, emails, and letters for hiring, dismissal and other sensitive or confidential situations. Stanford alumni in law, journalism and industry will visit the class to give talks in the first weeks and then will return to hear student presentations in the final weeks to offer suggestions and affirm their pedagogical connection to the students.


Any thoughts on this experiment? Please drop a line!




Ruth, this is a wonderful assignment.    And your students' ideas are brilliant.  Thank you for posting.  I'll include this as "supplementary reading" in the Coursera course I'm doing Spring 2014 on "The History and Future of the University."   Here's more on this course, which I'll be also teaching face to face to Duke Students and offering friends at universities worldwide to teach along too----not so much to see me Sage on the Stage in the Coursera course but to join in a collaborative worldwide forum on this topic.  Your experiment is an example of great new work being done!   Thank you.   Here's the url on my course:


Dear Cathy, thank you so much for your kind note and the URL I shared it with my students this morning and will discuss in class.

You are such an inspiration!

All best,



I love this!  Throwing an open, intriguing assignment at students from time to time really gets the best results.  I' doing something similar in the Fall.  See We should talk!


I love this!  Throwing an open, intriguing assignment at students from time to time really gets the best results.  I' doing something similar in the Fall.  See We should talk!


I love this idea so much, Ruth.   I hope you might think about including your course as part of our very loosely coordinated co-located "History and Future of Higher Education" sequence designed for Winter/Spring 2014--it can be a course, a unit, a workshop, and anything inventive.   We're trying to list a bunch of possibilities, and let our students run with ways of communicating new ideas, energy, excitement, topics.    HASTAC will provide a platform and we know our students can then communicate with one another and build some exciting new plans and ideas up to the sky!   


Hi Cathy, just getting back to you now about CoLocating. I'm teaching a version of one of these courses for our Science Notation series this Spring. Are you still potentially interested? If so, how do I CoLocate?





Hi Ruth, I was misusing "co-locating"----I mean the opposite, partnering virtually!   I think it is too late to set up a coordination across courses of the kinds David Palumbo-Liu and Chris Newfield and I are doing but I hope you will put the details and url for your course on our crowdsourced wiki of pedagogogical innovations.  It's a brilliant course and we are hoping to use ideas to inspire others. 


Here's the url to the wiki:     Any HASTAC member can contribute.  I hope you do, Ruth.   Your course is brilliant.  


I just want to echo the other comments and say that I think this is a wonderful prompt for students. I frequently find myself struggling to develop intriguing "themed" composition courses that will interest students and speak to the concerns they really have when it comes to writing and communication in their disciplines.  Thanks for this excellent idea!



What a neat writing prompt!  Thanks for sharing!

One thing I noticed about the courses the students designed was the stress that several of the courses put on oral communication, in addition to written.  I wonder if that might express a shift in the anxieties--in an increasingly written-down world, perhaps it's the oral expression skills which students feel really lost about.  I just love the idea of working these skills into a writing class, particularly around the idea of argument which we want to teach anyway...