Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Inspiring Syllabi for the new semester

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

So I’m really lucky to be in touch with some wonderful folks who are great pedagogues and continue to inspire me all the time.

So it’s really appropriate that I’ve recently been inspired by two people who have inspired me (and others!) to rethink my syllabus and revamp it completely in the future:

 

Adam Heidebrink-Bruno wrote The Syllabus Manifest: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture, where he also presents the most human syllabus I have ever had the privilege of seeing. It’s gorgeous. And every other syllabus wilts beside it. Seriously. I’ve shared it with colleagues at work and some people went totally nuts over how beautiful it was. Almost everyone who responded (and not everyone responded of course) wants to revamp their syllabus now. One colleague wants Adam in charge of her child’s education forever πŸ˜‰

His approach looks at syllabus as a “place to show our understanding and compassion”, and that “[t]ogether, teachers and students make up a single community as learners and, more importantly, as people“. (emphasis mine)

Before showing us his own syllabus, he discusses issues such as how specifying office hours ends up making contact between teacher and student rigid; whereas an open door policy is likely to create better rapport; he talks about how “Definitive approaches to grading tend to reward lesser acts of accomplishment”, they box , students into doing work that fit our expectations rather than work that meets their own curiosity and passions; he reminds us to think of culture and cultural conflict and misunderstandings that can occur.

You should look at the syllabus in its entirety (and his article) but here are some gems that you really wouldn’t expect in a syllabus, but now that I’ve seen them, I’d like to mimick. Things like

“Although many of you may be here due to University requirements, I hope that during the next sixteen weeks we will accomplish a good deal more than simply acquiring necessary credits. Imagine that we are human agents pursuing a better understanding of the world.”

and

“It is easy for academic subjects to become abstract and meaningless to students. I resent this practice and so I strive to share with you a practical and personally meaningful education. At the same time, I am responsible for balancing the desires of the University, the influences of economic forces, and the mandates of the government with my personal teaching style. This is not easy. Each collective member of the classroom must advocate for his or her own needs. With your help, I hope to never lose track of what’s truly important: our mutual learning.”

and

“Officially, it is my duty to assess what you β€œaccomplish” in this class. However, I do sincerely believe that only you are capable of learning, and understanding what you learned for yourself. Your grade does not determine this. [part of your grade] will be negotiated with the collective members of the class early in the semester. I do this because I believe that no momentary display of excellence (or test) will prove that you have learned anything β€œfor keeps” or that is personally valuable and meaningful.

Grades typically only measure the instrumental value of knowledge. They undermine alternative perspectives and, if we are not careful, punish non-normative behavior. Personally, I am more interested in the social, civil, and cultural values associated with learning. Ironically, these things are not graded. They cannot be. Authentic learning β€” the type that stays with you forever β€” is not something that I or any educator can give you; learning is an active process that requires deep, personal engagement with the material. In short: all learning is discovery. It comes from the self in conversation with an educative community. I hope that this classroom will serve as that community.”

I have to stop because I’m almost quoting the entire thing. It’s that good. Or I think so, anyway, as did a handful of colleagues who read it. I’m also going to send it to some students and see what they think πŸ™‚

The other inspiring syllabus idea is Michelle Pacansky-Brock’s liquid syllabus which I blogged about earlier – her idea involves making the syllabus more engaging and visually appealing, and she shows an example of one of hers with a video of herself introducing herself and the course. My idea was to have students liquefy my own syllabus as part of the creativity course. I still like this idea, because it generates more possibilities, gets students to engage with the syllabus deeply, and it’s less work for me πŸ˜‰

I have to go now – but just wanted to post these two inspiring syllabus ideas here for people who are still beginning their semester (I realize some have already started). These two syllabi reminded me to think of the syllabus as something that should represent the way I think and feel about my teaching, should show students a lot more about who I am, how I imagine the class to be, how I’d like to interact with them, and how I’d like us to engage together. Bland, formally written syllabi that meet institutional requirements go nothing towards that. It’s no wonder students don’t read them!

========
Added later, after comments with Terry Elliott reminded me that I am one of those ppl who never follows my own syllabus πŸ™‚ and then I came across this cool Shadow Syllabusby Sonya Huber post, so thought ai would share some items in it that I absolutely agree with. Such as:

The goals and outcomes I am required to put on my syllabus make me depressed; they are the illusion of controlling what cannot be controlled.

If you have read any of my posts on curriculum theory, you already know I hate outcomes and any illusions of control,

And this one below is soooo me, but I am more extreme:

I end up changing everything halfway through the semester anyway because the plan on paper is never what the living class ends up being about.

I am more extreme because i don’t only change halfway thru a semester… I change several times, including for every class and sometimes midway through class!

I don’t agree with all the rest of it, but I also liked these two and feel they apply to me, supporting the above:

Secret: when I over-plan my lessons, less learning happens.
Secret: I have to plan first and THEN abandon the plan while still remembering its outline.

I kinda love it when someone else expresses what i am thinking really well, and then i can quote them on it πŸ™‚

Woah, Sonya’s blogpost has 101 comments! Ah well, this pingback will make em 102 (not as cool a number, sorry)

11 Comments

  1. Thanks as always Maha! This was a timely, inspiring and beautiful post! Sandra xx

  2. Loved the article and will re-read it. My memory of school is very different. Even the good teachers were expected to crush you–that was what school was for.

    Adam’s whole outlook is foreign to my experience and it will be a struggle to imagine school in this way.

    Thanks Maha

  3. Syllabi are one of my guilty pleasures (J-pop is another but we won’t say anything more on that). I am guilty of having two syllabi–the one I render unto Caesar and the hidden one that unfolds in class every day, the one I render unto the students. I worry about that hypocrisy. I worry about the double bind I might be putting learners into whether they realize this schizoid split or not.

    I have been thinking and writing about the liquid syllabus and I love the examples Michelle Pacansky-Brock gives in her post (I told you I was a syllabus geek). I am still working on my ‘real’ syllabus that I want to symbolize our class more honestly, but part of me thinks that the syllabus itself is just a small part of a problematic system. I believe that in a sick world no one is healthy unless the person is a naif like Melville’s Billy Budd, or a martyr who is willing to pull down the temple to prove a point. I am neither, but the conflict remains.

    Maybe we should re-conceptualize the syllabus as a menu or as an extensive FAQ or a terms of service document. (Oh, wait, no one reads the latter two either.) I am thinking that my new “insert other word for syllabus here” might just be a listing of the initial conditions of the class (you will be writing, you will be reading, you will bring something to both, you will be making important compositional decisions, you will be researching, you will be expending effort for the future, you might look like this at the end of the semester, you will consider these questions). I know my strategic students would “hate” it. I might hate it. But it would be honest and it would be more closely tied to each learner’s genius loci. It would be a phase changing marvel, moving between liquid and solid and gas and plasma depending upon the energy in the learner’s system.

    I have travelled pretty deep in the ‘hills and hollers’ to get to this point in the comment. I think my purpose here has been to both compliment your post–I hope it is clear I love smart shop talk like this–but I also want to complement the idea of syllabus as a part of the institutional problem of power and pedagogy in the Uni. I do worry that my interest in syllabi might just be moving around the dinner forks on the dining tables in the HIndenberg. I wonder if others wonder the same. And I am always wondering what to do about it.

    (A sidenote: I often make long comments. If you feel I should make those comments on my own blog, I am happy to do that. I want to respect your space just as much as I want the syllabus to be my learners’ space. Do not hesitate to backchannel me at telliowkuwp. Or just call me out here. I will not be ‘affeared” to hear the verdict.)

    • Hey Terry, I loved your comment, why would I be unhappy about a long comment? It enriches my blogpost!

      I am also like you – I write the syllabus but teach something else completely (well almost) because it is important for me to:
      A. Respond to learner interests, needs, etc.
      B. Keep including new ideas that might work for class
      C. I explicitly make almost all my syllabus negotiable incl what projects will be, how they’ll be graded, etc.

      Up until five mins before class starts, i can change my plan. And often these are genius (well the student responses are good, and they name these things as particularly helpful to their learning, so…)

      Syllabi should not be static – and i wrote to Michelle the same as something i think the word “liquid” implies, more than actually the multimedia aspects of it πŸ™‚

      I like Adam’s syllabus because it shares his values, rather than laying the law πŸ˜‰

      Thanks again for your comment πŸ™‚

  4. Hi Maha, thanks for this post highlighting some interesting and inspiring ideas on approaching syllabus writing. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate – and one of those things that I guess teachers tend to produce in the same standard format without putting much thought into it (much like the ‘housekeeping’ section in classroom training that happens in organisational contexts).
    And thinking about Terry’s point (.. is it “just moving around forks on the dining tables in the Hindenberg…”?) changing the way a syllabus is presented and pitched is only smoke and mirrors if the rest of the course isn’t equally inspiring or you don’t follow through with the promises…or if the system insists on forcing constraints on you and still having you calibrate student grades into a bell curve. But: I think as practitioners you’ve still got to start somewhere – and that first step is changing your mindset and your students’ mindset, so that you’re both striving for something more than just ticking the boxes. And the syllabus is that initial step – how you pitch what you’re doing, and how you’re doing it, it’s the students’ first impression and that still counts for something, surely?

    I still need to read Adam’s post too (…but I sense a september edcontexts f5f theme on syllabi…! will add it to the sept gdoc as a reference).

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