Thursday, July 19, 2007

If Your Syllabus Could Talk

Chronicle: By Monica D'Antonio

One of my favorite examples of the minimalist approach to syllabus construction looked like this:

Week 1: Chapter 1.

Week 2: Chapter 2.

Week 3: Chapter 3.

Week 4: Chapter 4.

And so on, for 15 weeks. It was one page in length with no test dates, no contact information, nothing.

That syllabus, as scant as it was, speaks volumes about the professor who created it.

...The syllabus doesn't just function as a contract between teacher and student, however. In proofreading syllabi of varying types and quality, I also found that the syllabus functions as an indicator. Students can deduce how a class is going to shape up simply from the elements of the syllabus itself.

For example, if a professor's grading policy puts a heavy emphasis on class participation, group work, or written assignments, then that professor probably wants students to be creative, to engage in dialogue, and to interpret texts freely. If the grading system is simply an average of two or three test scores, with no emphasis on participation or interactivity, then one can assume that professor would almost rather the students not show up for class and get the notes from a friend.

When I teach English courses, I always remind my students that every text has an author and is reflective of that author's personal biases and social milieu. I also tell them that everything in this world is a text, open to interpretation and analysis. A syllabus, like any other text, cannot be separated from its author; nor is it above scrutiny and deconstruction.

Professors, as critical thinkers themselves, should be aware that their syllabi are alive, symbolic, and vocal. A syllabus really can talk, and it's saying a lot more than we think.

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