Monday, January 23, 2012

The syllabus as literary work

I try to write my syllabi to reflect the attitude that teaching is a scholarly endeavor. As I was putting the final touches earlier this month on my syllabus for spring semester, I was reminded of the buzz last fall over the posting of a couple of David Foster Wallace's syllabi. You can find the actual syllabi here and here.

While I don't necessarily recommend these as model syllabi, it's always a useful exercise, I think, to exchange our ideas and attitudes about teaching. DFW's syllabi contain some gems about his own thoughts regarding teaching and the learning process. I especially like that he freely borrows from other professors' syllabi (thereby recognizing that teaching is a community endeavor that is made better by sharing) and cites them accordingly (demonstrating good practice to his students while also conveying that a syllabus is, in some respects, a scholarly document).

One example of where DFW borrowed from a colleague's syllabus:
English 67 is a seminar. By way of elucidation, please look at the following gloss from Prof (name removed)'s E67 syllabus for Fall '05: "This is a discussion-based course; it is not a lecture course. What we learn will be driven primarily by the questions, comments, ideas, and energies that you bring to our discussion. In other words, we will learn about texts by actively engaging them and each other in our regular meetings."
And he follows this up under Course Rules & Procedures with:
Even in a seminar course, it seems a little silly to require participation. Some students who are cripplingly shy, or who can't always formulate their best thoughts and questions in the rapid back-and-forth of a group discussion, are nevertheless good, serious students. On the other hand, as Prof. (name removed) points out supra, our class can't really function if there isn't student participation--it will become just me giving a half-assed ad-lib lecture for 90 minutes, which (trust me) will be horrible in all kinds of ways. There is, therefore, a small percentage of the final grade that will concern the quantity and quality of your participation in class discussions. But the truth is that I'm way more concerned about creating an in-class environment in which all students feel totally free to say what they think, ask questions, object, criticize, request clarification, return to a previous subject, respond to someone else's response, etc. Clinically shy students, or those whose best, most pressing questions and comments occur to them only in private, should do their discussing with me solo, outside class.