I went to the movies a month or so ago and saw two movies. I get to go to the movies very rarely, so when I do I like to see movies that are very good. Of course, you can’t know in advance whether they will be very good, and based on last month’s experience the reviews in the paper are no help whatsoever.
Anyway, the movies I saw were “The Lucky One” and “The Five Year Engagement”. In my opinion, the first was good and the second was bad. Let me tell you why…
“The Lucky One” is very good mainly because it is a well-constructed movie. The story it told was simple, but with enough complexity to keep you interested. The characters were well-drawn — both the good and the bad. There were many subtle things to take away from the film, but none of them clouded the overall message, which nevertheless was not rammed down your throat. There was plenty of stuff in it to talk about afterwards. It was a good movie.
“The Five Year Engagement” was just bad. The story it told should have been simple, but it was made unnecessarily complicated by random plotlines. The characters jumped from nice people to complete wackos in the course of single scenes. There were some nice messages to take away about faithfulness and finding the love of your life, but they seemed to appear all of a sudden when someone thought the movie ought to end now. All in all it seemed like a random collection of stuff that someone thought was vaguely connected to the title. And the thing that made it the worst was that it really could have so much better. The idea had such scope for a great film — I really wanted it to be a good film — but it just wasn’t.
My feelings are the same about university courses, especially maths courses. Some have a small number of grand messages that all the ideas fit into neatly; others just seem like random collections of stuff to do vaguely with the title. In some courses each concept is discussed well and the connections between it and the rest of the course are made clear; in others everything seems half-done before you move on to some new and seemingly unrelated topic. Some lecturers give the sense that they have a plan and a story to tell; while with others you feel they just had to do this course today with the materials they had to hand. Finally, some courses leave you with a sense that it was worthwhile being there; while others leave you thinking it was all sort of interesting, but it could have been so much better.
I commend all those lecturers who already know that good course design is like good movie-making — these lecturers have a story in mind to tell, and a plan for telling it well. They know that students need to feel that it was worthwhile turning up.
To the rest of them I say it’s not good enough to have a lot of stuff to say that is good stuff. There has to be a story that draws it all together, and some big ideas you can walk away with. Without these you end up with a course that should be good but just isn’t — you end up with a course like “The Five Year Engagement”.