The Art of the Syllabus
What should a syllabus involve? Some are clipped and businesslike—a mere page or two. Others are more expansive, discursive, or even homiletic and inspirational. I put epigrams at the beginning of my syllabi (as often found leading a chapter of a book) and pepper them with exhortations, warnings, imperatives, and more. My syllabus for apologetics—a course I have taught at least once a year since 1993—weighs in at about sixteen pages: long enough to send the heartiest student into severe syllabus shock. In fact, it sent an adjunct professor whose is teaching the class for me this fall (I am going on sabbatical) into a similar panic after he beheld it. However, much of the girth is not its complicated assignments, but its references, both print and Internet. For some years, I have been using what I call a “hot linked” syllabus: references are linked in the syllabus and can be accessed immediately if one is on line. (Who says I’m a Luddite? If you would like a copy of this monster, let me know.)
The form of the syllabus is not as difficult as the content, however. The teacher needs to discern how much reading to assign, the course format (lecture, seminar, lecture-seminar?), and how students will be evaluated (quizzes, in class tests, take home test, oral reports, group projects?), and more. I wrestle with the level of the content as I prepare to teach Introduction to Philosophy at Estrella Mountain Community College this fall, having taught the class once before at Arapahoe Community College last term. The basic principle is to stretch the student, but not to the breaking point. However, it is far better to overwhelm the student than to bore them, thus insulting their intelligence. (Teaching and preaching should flesh out the same principle.)
Here is a thought experiment pertinent to the art of the syllabus. What if we were to gauge the expertise of a professor not by her published work or degrees achieved, but by the care and dedication she put into her syllabi? Some academic superstars might be found at the bottom of the barrel. Other unknowns would rise to the top as celebrated syllabus sovereigns.
But, then again, the actual phenomenology of the course in question may either rise above or sink below the level of the syllabus. When great jazz musicians jam together, they only need to chat briefly about what tunes to play and in what key. The rest is left to their implicit knowledge and flights of improvisation. They need next to no “syllabus,” so to speak. Some master teachers may put little effort into the syllabus but ascent to great pedagogical heights in the performance of the class itself. Classical music requires a rigorous syllabus in most cases. But a marvelous score may be miserably performed.
In light of these brief reflections, please tell me what you (as teachers or students) think the art of the syllabus may be. Give horror stories and glowing reports. Let us learn together the art of learning.