Author’s Note: the following post was originally published on Catch the Next’s “Innovative Instruction Blog” in August 2017.
One day, I sat across from a colleague sipping coffee who was complaining about fellow teachers who “talk over” the heads of their students; those who aim at graduate level discourse even as they stand before a class of freshman comp. She looked me in the face and smiled, “I mean, come on. It’s the first rule of communication: know your audience.” I laughed. I thought of her a few weeks ago, as I revisited my course syllabi, flipping through and sighing at the expanses of terra incognita (so much of it cut and paste and not even read by me) that confronted me amongst those 16 pages.
I don’t remember much of the syllabi I received in community college nearly 20 years ago; suffice to say, I did receive them and their length certainly wasn’t something of note. When I transferred to college in the UK, I was instead handed a small booklet for each course– the size of a slim hymnal – though the increased length was only to accommodate the substantial reading lists (all available at the college library). Today, my students must contend with the reality of $300 textbooks, codes for online labs, and—perhaps most striking of all—the syllabi we hand to them on the first day of class, as a hearty welcome to the world of academic bureaucracy. Try as I might – an icebreaker, a writing prompt, and some well-placed jokes—the albatross of the syllabus must be dealt with. A 45-minute infosession abyss for a document that will be crumpled at the bottom of a backpack at the end. How many times has a student asked you something plainly stated in the syllabus?
Rebecca Schuman for Slate regards “Syllabus bloat” as “a textual artifact of the decline and fall of American higher education” replete with “transparent ass-covering and bad intentions.” She argues that it is a primary example of college corporatization and the administrative desire to mirco-manage faculty to serve the needs of a “customer” student who increasingly expects this transactional approach. Indeed, I was advised to “put everything in writing” and “think like a lawyer” as I embarked on my teaching career and this very specific task of syllabus writing nearly ten years ago. The common refutation is not to make up policies “on the fly” as they can lead to trouble down the line. It is good advice but also a false dilemma. There is a middle ground to be found here, surely.
I loved the zine-like books in Scotland, and so for years created booklets for my students in the same vein. A pretty picture, an inspirational quote, a selection of the best fonts and color coded by prep. Watching students flip through them throughout the semester was gratifying though I knew deep down that it was a clever diversion that sidestepped the bigger issue: the content itself should be compelling. Looking at other approaches, I found many teachers struggling with just this issue because we all know, at the end of the day, students just aren’t reading them.
I think the seed of my syllabus overhaul was planted when I picked up a copy of Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor at the San Francisco Airport. It was whimsical, silly, poignant and breathtaking (her work so often is). Then, when Tona Hangen’s “Extreme Makeover” of her U.S. History syllabus made the viral rounds, I was reminded of how impactful visuals can be in conveying meaning for a generation reared on smartphones and iPads. After all, I want them to really know what they’re getting into on the first day and for this, I needed to better consider my audience.
Truth be told: it’s tough to battle the bloat. It will always exist somewhere and is hard to delete entirely (you can see how I handled this below). If you’re keen to be a little more subversive about it, consider Adam Hidebrink-Bruno’s syllabus manifesto which addresses students directly using the language of critical pedagogy and demystifying—forever—what a syllabus is really meant to do. You could also mark all that fine print in a section called “boilerplate” or “tl;dr” as Schuman suggests (and she notes wryly that this is likely to go unnoticed by administrators). Or you might take Mike Wesch’s “Big Ideas” approach that “talks to the text” in an honest and compelling way.
All of these methods inspired and informed my work, and so I set about to create this.
I was challenged to be succinct and clear about my assignments, expectations and instructional approach – I had little room to spare. I used Hangen’s ocean metaphor to lead a discussion of what college is really about and how students are also responsible for what they take away from a course at the end. Of course, a departmental syllabus (with all that fine print) is still required so I put in on Blackboard in a prominent location and show them how to access it if they need to. I emphasize that none of the information is contradictory between the two documents but that the visual syllabus is the “highlight reel”.
The reception was positive and, more importantly, I have clarified what I feel is important about the work I do. I have also signaled the journey of mutual learning I’d like to take with my students over the next four months. Moments of reflection are hard to come by as we put out fires in the first week; taking the opportunity to turn a mundane task of cut and paste into a moment of empowerment was a good way to start the year.