Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Art of the Syllabus

Is there an art to the syllabus? First of all, what is a syllabus? It is a constitution or charter for some kind of course in which certain things are to be achieved. So, a syllabus is programmatic: the course will accomplish X number of things in Y kinds of ways (or one hopes). It contains references to books and articles, but is not a bibliography per se. The syllabus should motivate a student to learn through the class. It should not confuse her or overwhelm her. It should reveal the concern of the professor for the student and for the discipline engaged. In other words, it should be an act of love. Syllabi are obviously important to modern learning—I don’t think Jesus handed any out to his disciples, however—but have never heard a lecture about them or even read an article on them. One usually learns from the syllabi one has received as a student or from those shared by other faculty.

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.


Tyler F. Williams said...

I am at times shocked by what some professors call a syllabus. I tend to be very thorough and professional with my syllabi. Clear course description and learning objectives, statement for students with disabilities, course requirements, a detailed schedule (which helps keep me on track), and a pretty extensive bibliography, among other things. Perhaps I am too detailed, but such is life!

Anonymous said...

It seems to me, that the syllabus carries the same effect as coming to the front door of a home one is considering purchasing. Being a real estate agent, when I come to the front door, it typically (but not always) tells me what the remainder of the home will be like. If the door is in good repair, painted or varnished well, with both locks working (on the same key)then the likehood of finding the remainder of the home well-tended increases. The syllabus carries a similar effect in setting the expectations of a class. I don't mean merely the amount of required reading, writing and class involvement, but also the professors level of commitment to the students in how carefully it is prepared.

Additionally, I tell buyers and sellers, on a regular basis, that successfully buying and selling a home always require doing one's homework: checking out the neighborhood, visiting the immediate area at night (not just during the day), being aware of the market conditions and prequalifying for the loan, ect. ect...Similarly, a clear, well written syllabus tells the student if the teacher has done their homework and sets the stage for expectations of the students work.

Jeremy said...

As a student, I rely on the syllabus to be clear and thorough--even if it's a mile thick. It's important to know exactly what's expected of me, and where I have freedom to be philosophically creative, e.g., term papers. I use the syllabus in a fashion similar to Dr. G's jazz metaphor. A simple cord chart is fine, but you've always got to know whose turn it is to solo. A brief syllabus may let you know where the course is going, a la the cord chart, but it may not tell you your role in the class, where you solo.

Plus, the better the syllabus is the less time the prof has to spend going over it. One of my huge pet peeves is spending the first day of class going over the syllabus--as if we're all too stupid to read it ourselves.

However, my pet peeve has been tempered a bit by teaching undergrads. Undergrads of all stripes have one thing in common--no matter how well-prepared the syllabus is, they're just going to shove it in a folder, and never look at it again. Thus, it behooves the prof to waste time in redunancy, spelling out verbally what has already taken all summer to write down.

With all of this in mind, when I attempt to create a syllabus I try to be clear and concise, spelling out the course schedule and assignments with precision. I also try to include every single class policy that could be even remotely relevant. That way all of the contingencies are covered, and the student can't say, "I didn't know that was the way the class was run." If that comment happens to be made, I can simply say, "It was in your syllabus; you should have read it."