Classes start tomorrow and my syllabi are finally done. They've been completed for a few days, but I never deliver them to the copy center on time; I prefer making endless micro changes in the vain hope of creating the perfect syllabus. Ideally, a syllabus conveys a tone, makes a clear and compelling argument for the importance of the subject matter, and lays steel traps for potential slackers.
I would fine-tune my syllabi endlessly, but I have a deep-seated horror of showing up on the first day of class without it. Although a few of my esteemed colleagues seem perfectly comfortable handing out their syllabus on the second week, I would feel I was living a recurring anxiety dream, like I’d shown up naked.
Part of my obsessiveness is the fantasy of perfection. I love the beginning of the semester: the clean slate, the chance to do everything right. (Like that Bill Murray in Groundhog Dog, as an inept weatherman who repeats the same day over and over, eventually getting it right.) After almost 20 years of teaching college I should be able to draft the perfect document. But I don’t.
What I'm forgetting, of course, when I painstakingly plan my course syllabus, is that there will be twenty-five other distinct people there too, whose interests and personalities and investment in the course will define it.
This semester our college started linking students' ID photos with the class rosters. For those of us who make an effort to learn our students' names, this is a great help. When I look at the eager, expectant (and varied) faces of my future students I realize that the course is not mine alone.
It's not clear from their ID photos which students will make brilliant comments, who writes beautifully, or who will stare sullenly at me every week. The photos don’t reveal who’s depressed, afraid, in love, broken-hearted, bereaved, or hostile. It's easier to take them at their shiny Midwestern faces' value and assume the best.