Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 33 seconds

Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Inspiring Syllabi for the new semester


Estimated reading time: 5 minutes, 33 seconds

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 😉

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.”


“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.”


“Officially, it is my duty to assess what you “accomplish” 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 “for 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 — the type that stays with you forever — 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 🙂

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 😉

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 🙂 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 🙂

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


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