I Hate The Syllabus

To quote the philosopher Chuck D, "Hate is a strong word, but I hate the snow." These are some of the words I most clearly remember from my days at Syracuse University. Syracuse is a place for people who love snow, or at least it doesn't bother them. At Syracuse I had a lot of great experiences, but in planning out some future courses, I had a look at some old syllabi. I don't remember them very well at all. I think the assumptions about what a syllabus should look like hurt our ability to engage students from the very first moments of the class.

A typical example of professor syllabus cynical humor/hegemony.

A typical example of professor syllabus cynical humor/hegemony.

Syllabi are unmemorable. Why do we not recall what is on them, or when we go to check them out, they are totally uninteresting? It seems that I should remember more about why or how I got inspired to be in a course as easily as I remember an offhanded comment from a guest speaker. 

The syllabus has become (or perhaps has always served as) a disciplinary document, a marker of power, something that is supposed to affirm some difference in authoritative/disciplinary power between the student and the teacher. It's an "invisible fence" or "shock collar" (are those the same thing?) meant to keep students "in line" and things like that. Doesn't seem like a contract to me, but more of a badge of office - the sort of badge you'd find in a bad western where the sheriff and the deputies don't seem to have any other plans or purpose but to be "in charge." There's nothing more to do but to display and exercise power. 

The syllabus cannot be a contract since there's no way for students to amend it, add riders, or simply walk away. You might think there are, but with the low amount of sections offered by universities and colleges today, plus the necessity of students working nearly full time to pay for class, and the incredible expense of college requiring that they have to be done in an incredibly quick time-frame, there really isn't an option for them to wait until another semester or for them to look for a different section. In the end most of the courses are going to be the same. 

I feel like most faculty get a secret perverse thrill out of the presence of the syllabus. Students won't read it, so they know that in December they can sigh, pull out a copy, and show the concerned student that on page 14, bullet point 8 under section 3 clearly explains that they have no chance of passing the course. There's also a lot of pleasure in the commiseration writ large on social media where professors tell stories of the students not reading or following simple instructions buried in a boring, nearly unreadable document. If we needed any more evidence that faculty are a bit disconnected from the world or "monastic," this would be it. 

Taking a look at my syllabus, I find it to be the most boring thing I've read in a while. Stylistically it's garbage. Content-wise it reads like a list of do-nots: "Here's what we are going to read when," "here's how to handle this or that issue." I wish I had spent more time on it, even though it's just for public speaking, a course everyone has to take before they end their sophomore year at my college. I still feel I could do a better job presenting it. 

These things are important, but should they be the full scope of this document? If we answer yes, then we are losing some great opportunities to reach students. I think there are a few key assumptions we should keep in mind when generating a syllabus:

1. This is most likely the only writing you do that your students will read. If you are one of those obnoxious people who assigns his or her own work in the class, you have a lot more problems than I am addressing here, but you should consider the syllabus an introduction into your writing.

2. The syllabus is a common map, or grounding, for everyone in the class to formulate a plan for each meeting. It doesn't have to work, it just has to provide the materials to execute the plan. Much can be learned from failure. 

3. The syllabus should not be written in a way that treats the classroom as a space of business, a transaction, or exchange of commodity. It has to resist the capitalist grammar. 

So with those assumptions in mind, what metaphors for the syllabus exist? 

Party Invitation

Here's an invitation to a great party, a celebration where the guests will be the books we're reading. The attitude of the syllabus should be one of excitement and promise of a great time to come. I often think about my course design this way - who should be the guest speakers or guests of honor for the course - but this creative and generative thinking never translates over to the syllabus writing. 

A Map for Visitors

Consider your field or your course a national park or a historical site. Your syllabus is the guide that is freely available at the entrance or ranger station. Visitors to the park should consult it so they don't miss anything that the site has to offer, but of course they have the freedom to stick in one place as long as they like if they are really enjoying it. There's no reason to rush around from site to site as there's no real way to connect a "total" experience - that is, "we've seen it all" - to the pleasure or enjoyment or comprehension of the "meaning" of the site. Some suggested places to go and study the history of how the site was constructed ("who put this fence here and why?") should be in there for conversation with the visitors should they ask, but overall the visit is governed by a moving through the guide by the visitors with assistance from the guide.

A Love Letter to your Discipline

This metaphor places the reader in the position of eavesdropper or the syllabus in the position of "found writing," something that they, through fate and time, have become the audience for, but were not imagined as the audience by the author. This can lead to some really interesting views of the syllabus, including that of mystery that the readings and assignments unfold over time and through process. This metaphor also highlights the importance of working together to answer burning questions. Group projects are unpopular because they are designed by cynical faculty from a generation or two removed from this one. But if we look online we find gaming communities such as No Man's Sky and World of Warcraft working hard in groups to solve puzzles and riddles. 

This does not need to be complex, but merely interesting. People love to see what a relationship is about and why someone might write something full of love and caring to something or someone else. You could cast the class in the role of interceptor - that the author and recipient are unknown - but by engaging in the list of tasks things can be revealed about that relationship that are insightful.

In Media Res

The class is thrown into the moment you are in right now as a scholar, facing some question or series of questions that are connected to daily life in the world. The writing must be connected to a world that the students can recognize, although the questions can be a little strange. Students then proceed through the course looking to solve the dramatic tension shown on the first day with the instructor as the "main character." Everything bends back toward seeing if we have enough material or thought to bring to bear on the question. By the end of the term, it's clear we have some resolution but everyone is curious about what's going to be in the sequel (in a perfect play of this metaphor anyway). 

There are many more metaphors, I just haven't thought them all through yet. The point of the syllabus should be to invite, welcome, and provide resources for the students entering a course, a place for exploration of an approach or a way of thinking. It shouldn't be thought of as a contract (worst possible metaphor) nor should it be thought of as some sort of document that saves the professor frustration, time, or energy. It absolutely shouldn't establish the course and the work of the course as commodities worth student investment of time in order to be sold later for high profit (re: grades). It should be as revolutionary as the rest of your thinking as a teacher, something designed to shake up the students, dust some assumptions away, or spark a fire that gives way to new growth after the burn of the term ends.