classrooms · syllabus

Change it up!

Well, we’ve made it!

Congratulations, you’ve survived September. Its been difficult, what with the inevitable topsy-turvyness of beginning classes and the seventh-circle-of-hellmouthness of online grant applications. I myself have just flown back to Halifax from a weekend conference in Edmonton. I’m jetlagged and preparing to finish tomorrow’s lecture. This of course has me thinking about my school wardrobe. No, not (only) this kind. In addition to wondering how I’ll patch together a swelter-worthy-yet-professional-and-slightly-edgy ensemble, I find myself thinking more seriously about that other kind of academic fashion: the syllabus. I mean, I remember shopping for courses based wholly on how exciting/scandalous/unusual the syllabus looked.

Am I alone in that?

I have the good fortune to be teaching, among other things, a contemporary theory course. I’ve taught a version of it several times, at two different universities, but this year I’ve given the reading list a huge makeover. Each time I teach this course I find that the students are both excited and a bit apprehensive. They seem to think that the reading material is going to be duller than unsweetened oatmeal (though oatmeal is anything but dull). Some of the time they are right. After all, while intellectually stimulating, sure, the structural anthropologists are don’t generally pop into my mind as paragons of stylish writing.

Obviously the use of theory has been debated over and again and that isn’t what I’m interested in here. Nope. I’m wondering how many of us out there give our syllabi new school outfits. It has crossed my mind that, given I’m on a 3/3 teaching load I might consider recycling some material—and don’t get me wrong, I do (though actually quite rarely…)! But I find myself continually working to pull the reading list together into a kind of cutting edge meets classic whole.

I’ll go out on a limb and say: changing one’s syllabus is as important as changing up one’s style. It gives you a chance to see how you fit your own thinking into, alongside, or against whatever is au courant in your field. And its our job to remain engaged with our respective fields. So despite the fact that I’m wishing I had an old lecture to pull out of my archives for tomorrow, I know its worth the effort.

How often do you change your syllabus?

8 thoughts on “Change it up!

  1. My problem (?) is that devising new classes – from framing the arc, to peopling it with readings, to the hunt for that absolutely perfect image from amid 372 in the archives search /mixed metaphor – is my absolutely favourite part of my job. I cannot understand colleagues who have a set roster of four or five since time immemorial (ie. the '90s); but then, they probably consider what I do a waste of potential research time. When a new term starts and I'm teaching something I've taught before, I still spend hours every week tweaking & rearranging – and when I do that, I actually teach better. Besides, even if I'm teaching something I've taught before, I see different connections, and different points of emphasis depending on the new climate of the world around me (especially true in Canadian Studies & environmental history, for obvious reasons). In fact, I get frustrated by my department's relative stasis on curricular evolution – so I do it in my own classes.

    Now, what to wear today? What to wear?


  2. Claire! I absolutely agree. In fact, as you well know, I get my research kicks in my (technically) non-research job by constantly changing my classes even when I do return to a text I've taught before. Further–as you suggest–there are certain focal points (like yours, and mine too) that absolutely require constant updating/rethinking/revolution.

    Curricular evolution sounds devilishly exciting!

    Today I shall wear a brand-spanking-new pair of (75% off) Fluevog kicks I purchased whilst in the province of no sales tax. Whee!


  3. As a student, i hope to only take a class once. However, we can also tell when the prof teaches the same class over and over and over again and doesn't actually change up the info. Mainly prof's who don't change their reading lists and course structure tend to be..boring, and stuck in their own ways. Which is bad for a student. I hate that feeling you get when you walk into a classroom to get back that essay which was absolutely brilliant and worth and A, only to receive a B or a C with little to no comments on why. Though when you talk to the prof they pull out that typical high school english class issue where if you didn't pull out “that poem is about pregnancy”, and got something else, you failed that assignment. So I think changing up the material makes the prof think more, and push themselves to different lines of thought.

    Not only that but it also helps the students have a little more fun, and open up, and use their heads. The worst thing for students trying to write papers is not the constant “mla or chicago style formatting” questions, but rather the tailoring of a paper and our ideas to suit our instructors.

    Ps. Thank you for letting me write my essay from that poetry class on dadaism and sound poetry.


  4. I like your metaphor. And that metaphor also suggests an approach that both keeps things fresh but doesn't break the (time) budget.

    It is a rare syllabus that needs a complete makeover from one year to the next. Identifying 2 or 3 sessions that really need to be improved and then maybe a couple of others that could use a new belt or a nice scarf to dress them up might keep things fresh and interesting without leaving you feeling like you have to write a new lecture every week.

    I used to use the free comments section of the student evaluation form to solicit input from students. I'd ask them to tell me up to 3 of the best sessions (don't change these, they work well, you can learn what works from them, too) and up to 3 that “If I were going to improve only 1 or 2 things about this course this summer, what should I definitely look at?” Asking direct questions gets remarkably helpful feedback.


  5. @ JoVE: I love your suggestion to use directed q&a to solicit student input. I do that as well, generally around this time of year to get a sense of how students are doing with the format of the class, and then again at term's end for precisely the reasons you suggest. Thanks for your incredibly useful observations!

    @Cheryl: My hope is that all of us who have the privilege/responsibility/job of standing in front of a class do so for the reasons you name (think more, and push ourselves to different lines of thought). One of the things I've been learning is that being out of one's comfort zone (reasonably so) can be incredibly useful for both me and my students. (though I have some friends/colleagues/acquaintances–most often of the non-tenure track variety–who get stuck teaching courses so wildly outside their areas of comfort much less expertise that one does wonder what the higher-ups are thinking… but that's a different post)

    (&, thank you/of course!)


  6. I agree with your post Erin, and with the subsequent comments. I always picked classes based on a creative syllabus (although sometimes these classes proved a disappointment and the courses with standard, dare I say “boring,” syllabi proved enlightening).

    In addition to reviving a syllabus, I also reread every text according to the schedule I've outlined. This allows me to keep track of my expectations – whether I'm asking too much or too little from my students – and ensures that the texts are fresh in my mind. The texts change every time – depending on the class dynamic, in relation to the other texts on the syllabus, and in conjunction with new theories or articles on the topic/text. Updating your syllabus shows that you are keeping in tune with recent developments in your field, but also that you've taken into account student feedback.

    I can't imagine wearing the same outfit every semester…not without, at the very least, a new colourful pashmina.


  7. @ Veronique: I completely agree that a thrilling syllabus isn't a guarantee of a well-wrought (or well-thought) course. Thank you for articulating that! The heart of what I'm getting at is a mix of creativity and–as you underscore–a constant awareness of the particularities of a given group of students. Just as a syllabus shouldn't be static, nor should one's expectations of how it will be received. Great points, thank you!


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