‘Syllabus’

Authors discuss their new book on "the remarkable, unremarkable document that changes everything."

October 20, 2020
 

The syllabus is a ubiquitous part of college courses, telling students what to read, when they will be tested and more. But Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything (Princeton University Press) argues that professors can -- and should -- get more out of the syllabus.

The authors are William Germano, a professor of English at Cooper Union, and Kit Nicholls, director of the Center for Writing at Cooper Union. They responded to questions via email.

Q: What's wrong with the way most professors seem to view the syllabus?

A: It’s less that most professors see the syllabus the wrong way than that most of us don’t consider all of what the syllabus might be able to do for our students and for us. The syllabus can feel like a formality, like a bureaucratic requirement, but we want to reframe it as a piece of writing we make for an audience. Or, better, a piece of writing that will come alive, and take unexpected turns, when it’s activated in a classroom. We encourage teachers -- we prefer the word "teachers" over the word "professors" -- to think of the syllabus as the script or score for a performance that will be partly improvised. And the performers are the students, really, not the teacher.

That’s probably the biggest difference between the most common views of the syllabus and what we’re encouraging: we ask teachers to take a philosophical approach to the syllabus, to see it as a space where we design for possibilities, not as (simply) a container for rules and requirements.

Q: Many see it as a legal document, a place to list the rules on grades, or the law on sexual harassment or disability services. What's wrong with that approach?

A: Again, not wrong exactly, but seriously incomplete. Of course those things are important, but they don’t really tell students what the course is about or activate their curiosity. In Syllabus we’re urging teachers to think first about what they want students to be able to do at the end of the course and then build backward. Readings, tasks, assignments, experiments can be progressive, and in each the students do something they don’t already know how to do. That’s key for us.

You take a course because you don’t know how to do something or how to think about something in a productive way. Exploration and risk -- students taking chances as they learn how to do things -- seems to us so much more useful than any of the many variants on top-down “content delivery” we all hear about much too often. And even popular strategies like “flipped classrooms” strike us as too formulaic.

For education to do everything it can, our plans for a semester need to focus on the difficult and deeply human work of building knowledge together. Yes, that requires that students get the services they need, feel physically safe and respected, and understand policies. But even in those areas, we believe that learning works better when teachers use the syllabus as a space for thinking about the needs of the real people they’ll be working with. Not as a space for copying and pasting administrative disclaimers.

Q: How can a new version of the syllabus turn "a classroom into community"?

A: If we as teachers can get it right, the classroom becomes a riskier, more humane space. There’s still hard work -- for students and for the teacher! In fact, the kind of teaching we’re pushing for might be more work for the teacher, at least at the beginning. So there’s risk for the teacher, too. But giving up centralized authority -- or the illusion of centralized authority -- is a precondition of giving students a sense of their own capabilities.

Teaching is always about people doing people things. We’re stuck right now in pandemic mode, most of us teaching digitally. Nobody loves it, but we can think of the constraint of the digital as a space to think through what we really want to happen in a classroom. What do we want students to be able to do? Not merely know, but know how to do, including knowing how to think with and think about. That’s human stuff. As to tech, if you’re depending on tech for the answer to your questions about teaching, then you’re asking the wrong questions.

So we posit the syllabus as a small constitution -- a document that founds a learning community. We call it the pedagogical contract, after Rousseau’s social contract. That means that while those rules about grading and the like do matter, the more important work the syllabus does is about citizenship in a tiny state where we learn and think together. We can set ground rules for debate, begin the work of setting epistemic standards and try to help all the members of the group understand what our collective goals are. We don’t offer prescriptions for how to do this, though we do give some examples for setting the right tone. Above all, we encourage our readers to take on the problem of seeing the syllabus this way for themselves.

Q: What's a reading list? How should faculty members think differently about it?

A: For a lot of us, a reading list is synonymous with a set of materials we’re expected to cover. Classic and contemporary writings on a subject, to be discussed and argued over, and that in turn provide the topics for written assignments or the materials on which students will be tested.

That’s traditional, and not wrong, but it’s definitely incomplete. So why read these texts or study these ideas? If you as teacher begin at the end and ask, “What do I want the students to be able to do at the end of the term that they don’t know how to do now?” a reading list can be constructed as a ladder, each rung or step of which confronts the students with a new task for them to do. In our view it’s the progressive intention of the reading list that becomes key. Not just coverage, like a literature review, but tools and materials with which students will build something for themselves.

Q: How does the syllabus relate to grades and grading?

A: Always make clear what you’ll grade and how. Students are anxious about grades, and with good reason. Good teaching recognizes that anxiety. The syllabus can’t eliminate a student’s concerns about grading, but it can definitely put students at ease about what’s expected of them.

Going back to that idea of the syllabus as a pedagogical contract, we don’t want founding documents for a new state to focus entirely on requirements, much less on punishments. So when we think about grading, we want to think about the ethos we hope students will adopt in relationship to their work in our courses. There are a number of strategies teachers have tried recently -- low-stakes work, ungraded work, self-graded work -- and the syllabus can lay some of that out. But what’s more essential, we think, is for the syllabus to orient the students and the teacher toward doing good work, for good reasons.

Grading is more about helping a group find its way to new ideas and abilities than about “assessment.” Sure, we give grades, and judgment is part of what we have to do as teachers. But a syllabus is more about the needs and potentialities of students than it is about those of universities or professors. Write a syllabus to activate students, inspire them, encourage them! Isn’t that what we’re in this for?

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