Reimagining the Syllabus

I like to think of a syllabus as an invitation, a here's the what, when, why, and what-you-can-bring kind of document. I would prefer my syllabus to be legible (read: interesting), so that students will not only read the whole thing, but they'll remember what it said.

Reimagining the Syllabus

On July 10, 2017, I had the opportunity to work with a group of instructors in an online environment. The subject for our discussion was “the syllabus,” especially as it relates to what a syllabus is for online students. The following is a compilation of some of my thoughts. This post was originally published on the blog of the Office of Digital Learning at Middlebury College.

The syllabus has been variously conceived as a formal contract between teacher and student, a guidebook for the coming term, a necessary evil full of bureaucratic language, a tool teachers can use to set expectations and upon which to fall back upon when students question assessments of their work, their final grade, etc.

I like to think of a syllabus as an invitation, a here's the what, when, why, and what-you-can-bring kind of document. I would prefer my syllabus to be legible (read: interesting), so that students will not only read the whole thing, but they'll remember what it said. Likewise, I prefer my syllabus to reach out and invoke student agency right from the get-go.

These are our first words in a digital classroom. And, like a storyteller, we should choose them well. What message does our syllabus send? What kind of class environment does it set up? And more than that, how does it demonstrate our pedagogy?

Can the syllabus, in other words, be something greater than a list of required readings, policies, learning outcomes, and expectations?

Show, Don't Tell

In fiction writing, there's an old adage: show, don't tell. What this means is that description, action, dialogue are far more effective than exposition. If I write: "He ran after the train", it's not nearly as effective as writing "Panting and sweating, his feet pounding and slipping across the gravel, he reached his fingers for the edge of the train car."

Similarly, a syllabus should—just might—show our teaching approach, our expectations for the kind of class we hope for, rather than simply telling students what our rules are and how to get an A. This is an opportunity for transparency about why we teach, why we love our subjects, why we believe students will succeed. The syllabus is our first, best opportunity to strike the right chord for an entire term.

Everything we say in our syllabus will reinforce or overcome the efforts we make throughout the semester. In other words, if our syllabus is full of requirements, rules, expectations, if we outline how we will be grading, how students will be evaluated, the specifics for how students should participate, we cannot expect that our attempts to be more flexible, to be personal, to relate to students will succeed later in the term. The syllabus is our chance to put that best foot forward (and outline expectations for the course).

I always encourage teachers who want to try to experiment in their classrooms, or who want to establish learning environments based on critical pedagogical or feminist values, to begin doing that even as they consider the first few words of their syllabus. For example, the following quote from Thomas P. Kasulis appeared at the top of my syllabus every course I taught: “A class is a process, an independent organism with its own goals and dynamics. It is always something more than even the most imaginative lesson plan can predict.”

What message does that convey to a learner? Expect the unexpected? There’s room for failure and discovery? How different is that message at the top of a syllabus than “In this class, you will learn…”?

Prioritizing Online Learners

Teaching online requires a different kind of intention than does teaching in a classroom. When we move a syllabus that we've designed for an on-ground course and upload it for an online class, doing so assumes that there are no significant differences between what/how we teach on-ground and what/how we teach online. Providing an on-ground syllabus for online students is a subtle hint that we feel on-ground experiences have primacy in education, and that the care we take in developing a digital course is not the same as the care we take developing a course for a classroom.

In some cases, I've worked with teachers who not only do not create unique syllabi for their online courses, but they upload syllabi that have not been updated for years (including due dates). For example, at an institution where I used to work, adjunct teachers were given pre-loaded course shells and asked to update their personal information, due dates, etc. Many didn't. And years after I had taught a class, I was still getting e-mails from students I didn't know because the new teacher had never removed my e-mail address from the syllabus.

Attention to detail is a way of caring for our digital students, and validating their experience as online learners. Likewise, thinking through the ways that our course will be different because it's online, or mostly online, and reflecting that in our planning, our syllabus, and our approach to teaching is the first step in welcoming students to the work we'll do together.

Reimagining a syllabus within a critical digital pedagogy context is a multivalent project. We must consider, for example: how do we move from an on-ground to an online environment; how might the syllabus become a site for critical pedagogy; what questions should be asked of the form of the syllabus itself; how does the intention of the syllabus align or not align with the learning experience we hope students will have? The syllabus is a pedagogical tool if we let it be, and not simply bureaucratic.

Image by Zoshua Colah