Dear Academia...

nk0825's picture

 The single most important instrument of structure in a course is the SYLLABUS, which outlines the goals and objectives of a course, prerequisites, the grading/evaluation scheme, materials to be used (textbooks, software), topics to be covered, a schedule, and a bibliography. Each of these components defines the nature of the learning experience. Goals and objectives identify the expected outcomes and scope of the course as determined by the instructor or course designer, restricting the domain of knowledge for the learner.

      Syllabus is a word most often used in classroom settings; for some it defines the boundaries of the course necessary for them to succeed, and for others it creates that box creative individuals love to break out of. What would you do if you walked into class on the first day and your professor said: I don’t have a syllabus to give you, you have to discuss, collaborate, and create it as a class. Honestly, I think most would simply gawk. Not because they would be scared of taking on such a challenge (and believe me, syllabus construction is indeed a challenge) but because they would be surprised that so much RESPONSIBILITY is being given to them as students.

      Our culture has accepted that a syllabus states the assignments, the deadlines, the exams, the grading scale, etc. This fact is acknowledged at the top of the page, and is most certainly an assumption of academia (this particular statement comes from an Arizona State University webpage). However, despite the statement’s seeming normalcy, the last phrase doesn’t sit well with me: Restricting the domain of knowledge for the learner.” As a literary kind, isnt a syllabus responsible for broadening the education of a student by outlining a course of study? Isn’t it meant to give students a diving platform from which they should explore other avenues? And lastly, why is the responsibility of creating a syllabus solely on the professor if they are only supposed to be mediums through which knowledge is shared and nurtured?

      As our study of literary kinds has progressed the syllabus has evolved with us; this was only made possible by our inclusion in the syllabus/ ”syllaship“ constructing process. Thinking deeper into the meaning of syllabus as a literary kind I have noticed that my feelings about student inclusion parallel my thoughts on what constitutes reading, as discussed in class a few days ago. If students are included in creating a syllabus they are more apt to enjoy what they learn about because they have chosen the paths of their own education. They are also more inclined to participate in discussions if prompted by their interest and ability to bring their own experiences to the table. When choosing books readers gravitate towards something that interests them; by physically holding the text in their hands and absorbing the words on a page most readers create worlds of their own within the text. More or less, the readers use their imagination to bring life to the words on the page. I believe similar responses have been generated in our classroom experience. Since beginning our study of student selected readings discussions have been vibrant, explorative, and most important: interestingly unique.

            Being included in our syllabus construction has benefited both the students as well as the professor. Our compiled syllabus has given us new literary kinds to study and has given our professor a chance to teach something she has never taught before.

One complaint I’ve heard all too often is professors often become bored of teaching the same class because they choose to re-use syllabi. Here’s a benefit for you, professors: asking your students for help creating the syllabus means the possibility of you listening to similar conversations year after year are reduced!

Furthermore, it is imperative that students learn to guide themselves through their education, picking and choosing what books to study or what genres to discuss ultimately makes us more well-rounded individuals. If there is one thing an education should do, it should enable students to make sound decisions that will directly benefit them.

      Many of my fellow classmates appeared to be just as enthusiastic as I was about our ability to help plan the second-half of our semester. Some said student inclusion in syllabi planning is a method other professors should use more often because students might be more excited about their work.  However, there were a few of us who seemed uncomfortable with this unorthodox step in education. One individual idealized that the idea of a professor having the most experience, training, and ability to make informed decisions about how the class is structured and organized is more appealing— or should I say more comfortable.

      I think this comfort found in viewing professors as all-knowing and wise Yodas is an unfortunate effect of how we have been educated. We have learned K-12 to rely on teachers to construct our academic studies, when really we should have been learning how to integrate personally identifiable material into courses. As Tim Burkes post in his blog Easily Distracted states, We throw a lot of classic work at kids that requires a forty year olds emotional and intellectual experience to really click. I think it is imperative for professors and all academia to understand that in order to produce the most fruitful educational experience students need to encounter texts, material, work, etc., that they can relate to.

     Also, some felt as if the week spent on syllabus construction was a waste of time. However, I for one think the week was far from wasteful. To me, being included in creating a syllabus made me feel as if I was actively pursuing my education as opposed to having it handed to me on a piece of paper. As a student I have been engrained with the norms: absolute teacher authority to design and choose the texts and material covered in class. Does this individual authority perhaps have too much impact on a student’s educational pursuits? Again referencing Tim Burkes idea that syllabi are created for 40 year olds, wouldnt it make more sense for a college student, who is paying for their education, to have some say in what material they are studying? If this is the case, as it seems to be so, why arent more educators re-evaluating what the syllabus as a literary kind means in academic terms?

      With this question in mind, I wonder if student involvement in creating syllabi changes the syllabus as a literary kind. Obviously it alters the classroom experience, which I deem amazingly progressive. But, this metamorphosis of a syllabus also shifts some responsibility of education from the academic hierarchy (officials, deans, professors, adjuncts) to the ones actually learning—the ones who have chosen to continue their education: the students.

            It seems to be a paradox. Higher education is supposed to expand the knowledge of the students who desire to learn. But, if the most commonplace method of course construction, the syllabus, is DEFINED as “a means of restricting the domain of knowledge for the learner” then, why in the world has it not been altered in order to fit the claims of educational institutions?

            It is time for the progressive minded professors to stand up and challenge academia; it is time for students to take hold of their education. The syllabus NEEDS student input, otherwise it will continue to be a meaningless piece of paper that summarizes the professors’ ideas of what needs to be learned.

            As a class, we have continued an experiment that is changing the syllabi as a literary kind. We have forced syllabi movement— changing it from a rigid, feared enemy to a progressive and necessary aid. Our construction experience, though long and seemingly cumbersome, has provided a wonderful reality that is many times left unrealized. So I say:

Hello Academia... the Literary Kinds syllabus has been morphed into a student engagement insurance policy.


Burke, Time. "Hester Prynne, Schmester Prynne, Or Sarah Palin's Ressentiment Clubhouse." Easily Distracted. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Mar. 2010.



Anne Dalke's picture

"A student engagement insurance policy"

I'm very glad to hear, of course, that our experiment in syllabus-construction has had such a positive effect for you, making you "feel as if you were actively pursuing your education as opposed to having it handed to you on a piece of paper." And I very much like your upfront acknowledgement that inviting students to co-construct a syllabus means giving them much more responsiblity for their education than is common or usual--but not than is desired.

A great local experiment in this regard, one that's been going strong for over a decade, is the Soundings program @ Radnor Middle School. As explained on the webpage (and as actually enacted in the classroom--I know, because some of my children participated in this experiment),

SOUNDINGS challenges eighth graders to explore student-selected themes that merge their adolescent concerns with global issues. It works something like this: following a process of asking, analyzing, and grouping lots of questions, the class works together to decide which questions they most want to study. These then become our themes for the year. For each theme selected, students learn to set goals and objectives, develop and initiate plans to achieve those aims, present their results, and assess their performance. As they experience this process with its emphasis on both quality performance and higher order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and assessment, students master essential skills and concepts from all academic disciplines and apply them to real world issues.

As you can see, this is an even more radical experiment than the one we're trying out here; you all signed up for a course in genre, and I insisted that the texts you chose fit within that framework; in the Soundings program, the children  -- and these are eighth graders! -- select the theme for the whole year (and thereby all their linked coursework) themselves.
I share your hope that if "students are included in creating a syllabus they are more apt to enjoy what they learn about because they have chosen the paths of their own education. They are also more inclined to participate in discussions if prompted by their interest and ability to bring their own experiences to the table." But do we really have evidence that this is the case? I'd push back a little on your celebration of the outcome of such student-directed syllabi-making, @ the point where you claim that "since beginning our study of student selected readings discussions have been vibrant, explorative, and most important: interestingly unique." Is it really the case that our discussions have been different since we began reading the texts, and pursuing the themes, that you all chose? What's your evidence for that claim?

Yours is the second essay, this round, to examine the evolving "literary kind" that is the syllabus (see  teal's syllaphobia for a more melodramatic account of the difficulties of syllabus construction!). So I'll end by repeating, here, some of the questions I asked in response to that first essay:

You say that inviting students to co-construct a syllabus is an "engagement insurance policy." I like that notion very much. But what happens, in the process, not to the students, but to the "literary kind" that is a syllabus, itself, if it gets re-figured en route during the semester in response to students' own interests? What happens in particular to the ideals of "coverage" and "expertise"? What difference does it make if the document is put together collaboratively by a group whose members are not familiar w/ the field, rather than by an individual who is, and who is attempting to use the syllabus to represent that field to the best of her knowledge? Is this akin to the shift in knowledge-making that (ostensibly) is afoot in blogging (which you discussed in your first paper), where  the response of the audience plays a role in what is written? What happens, in other words, when the "syllabubble" that is the professor's private dreaming (or her attempt to represent the dreams of her area of expertise) goes public?


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