January 27, 2005

Rethinking the Syllabus

Posted by Michael Arnzen at 19:43 in Praxis.

I adored Terry Caesar's article, "Against Syllabi" recently posted to Inside Higher Ed. In it, Caesar argues that the course syllabus has become so overridden by legalese that it's been rendered meaningless: "It seems to me that we have become unsure about what not to put on syllabi because we have become unsure what a course is. It is no longer self-contained."

Caesar's right, of course. There are so many institutionally-driven guidelines that have very little to do with the course that the document is longer than a real estate contract. Although many of us teach close reading, I wonder if the long-winded, legalistic syllabus is a genre that -- like the forms put out by the IRS -- are reader unfriendly by design.

But aside from all the course policies and mandatory statements, a syllabus is a great course organizing tool, one that makes me a better teacher. I think of it as being akin to a book outline -- it maps out the territory to be covered in the course. I'm one of those teachers who outlines the entire term in a calendar that is integrated into my syllabus, and I follow my plan rather strictly. Homework due dates, reading assignments -- it's all in there, in a really big table. It also helps me revise the course as I go: I jot notes on the printed sylllabus after each class meeting, so I'll remember what to change for the next time. By thinking of the syllabus as not only a road map or a contract, but also as a document in revision, I find a well-organized syllabus invaluable.

I'm not against syllabi, obviously, but I think they do need to be focused on course learning objectives. It's worth critically reexamining your approach if you haven't changed your course syllabi for awhile. he Orientation to College Teaching website at San Francisco State U offers a really good discussion of Course Design and Creating a Syllabus, among other things.

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Last year, on one syllabus I listed "Quiz 1" on a particular date, and then a little later, "Q2". Some students objected that they didn't know what a "Q2" was, even though I had told them in class that there would be a quiz on that material.

I ended up saying that I would consider their request if they wrote it in perfect blank verse. A few did a good job. I didn't mind being flexible for the sake of getting them interested in blank verse.

Posted by Dennis G. Jerz at 16:39 on January 28, 2005. #

Hey, there! The use of rethinking in that context is under copyright! ;'p (Rethinking Marriage, rethinking syllubi, it's all the same!)

Posted by Evan at 22:54 on January 29, 2005. #

Thanks for the good links on the bottom there. Coming from high school, the syllabi are much different. In many schools, there is no syllabus. That allows more wiggle room for stuff. Some of that is good, but I do miss the structure of the college classes.
I set up a syllabus my last year of undergrad for a course in werewolves, now all the books are out of print. Topics like that would be great for POD printing, or I'll have to write my own textbook for the course. That is a whole 'nother can of worms though.

Posted by Aaron Bennett at 12:42 on February 6, 2005. #

I thought that if I went somewhere pretty far from my home institution to teach for a semester, I would be free from heavy syllabus requirements. But here at the University of Montenegro, at least in the English Department, there is a model for that requires explicit statements of course design, objectives, and topics. The number of credits for a course is considered for each assignment and test, so that a single test question carries its own weight (as in, .25 points out of a total of 100 point for the coruse). If such a thing were possible, I would find the system bemusing.

Posted by John at 15:17 on February 12, 2005. #

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