RTFS: Remix the F****ing Syllabus

photo credit: Barbara.K via photo pin cc

Now that my summer classes are over, I’m transitioning into what is, for me, one of the most enjoyable aspects of teaching–planning my next set of classes. There’s something to be said for the clean slate. I love the opportunity that a new semester offers in terms of trying out new methodologies and introducing students to new texts and ideas to work through. Of course, not all aspects of planning courses are equally enjoyable.

Take, for example, the syllabus. I often put it off until the last minute because I dread the tediousness of copying and pasting departmental policies and procedures (“must be worded exactly as indicated,” warns the departmental email) and attempting to infuse at least some of the excitement that I feel–and want the students to feel–about the course (a difficult task considering the punitive, fear-inspiring language in which our policies and procedures are worded). And then there’s the reality that few of the students will actually read the syllabus and, since I refuse to spend time during the first class meeting reading it to them, may happily survive an entire semester without ever being aware of anything it contains–neither the Kafkaesque departmental code of conduct nor my inspired introduction to the grand ideals of collaborative learning networks, active learning, and authentic assessment. How many times have you politely answered a question that would not need to be asked if the student had simply read the syllabus (while silently thinking, “Why don’t you just RTFS?”)? Which has led me to wonder if the syllabus is yet another aspect of traditional schooling that needs to be hacked.

Some instructors are doing just that. There’s now syllabi that are comics and syllabi that look more like brochures for an adventure through ideas. One of my favorites is a syllabus for a biological anthropology class that incorporates some rather friendly-looking skeletons (study buddies?). As pointed out by Jason B. Jones, new software and web tools have given us the ability to make our syllabi more visually engaging. But these are just superficial changes to a vestige of factory-style education whose entire purpose and content may need to be completely re-imagined.

For me, what brings the traditional syllabus’ irrelevancy to the fore is, ironically, two current trends that are centered upon the syllabus itself. One is the practice of creating repositories of syllabi for open use by other educators via tools such as Git Hub (see “Forking Your Syllabus”). The second is the sharing of syllabi among members of social media forums, such as Twitter chats. It’s not that I think that either of these practices is bad; in fact, I think they are extremely important because they encourage the kinds of open exchange of ideas and exposure to diverse teaching methods that are vital to promoting lasting and meaningful change within our educational institutions. But I’m not sure how well the syllabus really contains the kinds of ideas and disruptive methods that we really need to be promoting. Maybe some of them contain a hint of the teacher’s pedagogical philosophies or some kernel that allows us to imagine the kinds of thinking and writing they encourage in their classrooms. But I don’t think that a syllabus really tells us much about what actually happens on the ground; it is, after all, a static (dead) thing, created before we have even met our students, much less attempted to enact and give meaning to its rhetoric.

My own syllabus doesn’t say much about me or what happens in my classroom at all. I used to keep a working copy of my syllabus for each class in a folder. After each class meeting, I would annotate it, making note of what worked and what didn’t and what I should have done/asked students to do that I didn’t. This working syllabus, marked up to the point of illegibility for anyone but me, said more about the class than the version posted on the class website. As I have moved farther and farther away from canned lessons and have allowed my students to help define our objectives and shape how we reach those objectives, I have had to take more and more out of my syllabi. For example, I no longer include a tentative schedule in my syllabus because a class’s schedule is often so fluid that it’s far easier to create a Google Doc that can be easily updated. Even the section in which I outline the assignments that students will complete is purposely vague, allowing for a kind of flexibility that I have found is necessary when your focus is student- and learning-centered. How can I even begin to put into words what I imagine will take place as students read, discuss, and write about the texts I assign them? And what if what actually happens is nothing like what I imagined? What if it’s better? What if it’s a total inspiration-sucking disaster? How can the syllabus reflect or communicate any of this?

Maybe it’s not supposed to, but, if not, then what can/should it do?

The syllabus, in it’s current form, has never worked for our students, despite our constant refrains to RTFS. And it is increasingly incapable of creating a snapshot of what goes on in the right kinds of classes (Ann Lemott’s analogy of writing as a slowly-developing polaroid comes to mind: “You can’t–and, in fact, you’re not supposed to–know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it has finished developing”).

It’s time that we begin to remix the f***ing the syllabus. The question is how?

7 thoughts on “RTFS: Remix the F****ing Syllabus”

  1. “For example, I no longer include a tentative schedule in my syllabus because a class’s schedule is often so fluid that it’s far easier to create a Google Doc that can be easily updated.”

    I had to stop doing this years ago because I find myself needing to slow down for a section of a course and maybe speed up for another. I also come up with new ideas between class meetings. The traditional syllabus is a document of disengagement because, like you say, it’s created before we meet our students and are aware of the class dynamic. I’ve read a couple of posts (too long ago to provide links) about professors who used the blank syllabus method and let the students help create the class syllabus, including class policies on tardiness, attendance, etc. This method creates accountability in a way that our unheeded advice to RTFS can’t: students can’t rationally complain or offend against the policies that they helped create!

    1. I’ve also read about the student-built syllabus method and have been considering giving it a try. I guess the one thing that holds me back is the in-class time that it would require. My past experience with freshman (and even upperclassmen) is that they are so unfamiliar and uncomfortable with self-directed learning and goal-setting that they require a good bit of direct instruction and guidance from me during the process of establishing goals and guidelines. Right now, I’m just not sure how to fit it into an already packed schedule (I teach hybrid courses, so we have limited F2F time). But if the syllabus is the bible of the course (as I often tell students in an effort to get them to RTFS), then it may be that I have to make the time, somehow.

      1. It does take some time, but I have that luxury because my courses are completely F2F. I assign diagnostic writings during the process so that I can accomplish two things at once. Yes, freshmen are very unfamiliar and uncomfortable with self-directed learning and goal setting, so that adds to the complexity. However, it’s such a needed experience for them because I find that the main problem that our freshmen face is the transition from a standardized testing culture to a critical thinking culture. This activity helps with that transition. If you have access to your students’ email address, it might work to email them before classes begin to explain the nature of the course and to have them start thinking about the syllabus. Some students might come to class with ideas, which could make the process more efficient. Also, it could be done in pieces, giving the students a voice on a particular part of the syllabus, such as just the goals or just the grade distribution. What seems like a fun way to have students help build the reading list is to, besides having them look online, ask friends, family, and other professors. I haven’t taught a class since I thought of doing this (full-time admin. duties), but it seems that Facebook and twitter would make this hunt easy.

        Thanks so much for promoting my post! I appreciate the inspiration 🙂

        1. Thanks for the ideas. I’m working out how to integrate these into the course right now. Emailing ahead of time is great idea; I usually do that anyway to give them a heads-up that they’ve registered for a hybrid course (many don’t realize they have) and what that entails, so I can just include a link to a Google Doc with some initial questions to begin considering. I’ve been looking for things to do on the first day besides go over the syllabus–something that starts them doing the kinds of interactive, collaborative work they’ll be expected to do throughout the term–and creating the syllabus might be just the thing.

  2. You probably already familiar with what Cathy Davidson has done in her “This is your brain on the Internet” course, including her controversial decision (as she reports) to crowdsource grading: http://hastac.org/blogs/cathy-davidson/how-crowdsource-grading

    Here’s the chapter from her provocative book in which she details her experience: “Project Classroom Makeover.” *Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.* New York: Penguin, 2011. 61-104. The following chapter “How We Measure” reflects and elaborates on the grading blog post above.

    1. Yes, I think that what Davidson is doing is inspirational (I shared her book with a few colleagues, many of whom have bought it for their own teaching libraries). I do a similar kind of crowdsourcing in terms of capstone projects. The main stumbling blocks for me in terms of student-led whole-course design are that my students are freshman (and conditioned by K12 for a passive type of learning that is difficult for them to abandon) and the hybrid format, which limits my F2F time with students.

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