It seems that for quite a long time (that is, a decade or more) there has been more and more pressure on professors to plan the whole course, day by day, before the semester begins (and put the schedule on Blackboard or similar), so that everybody knows in August that on November 15th we’ll discuss Fitt 3 of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and on November 17th a paper is due. Students expect to be able to look up their reading and paper assignments weeks or months in advance; a few super-conscientious and organized people (usually the returning students who are planning their coursework around their kids’ school and sports events) even start work on the papers well in advance.

Such planning can also be useful for professors, who get notably more harried as the semester wears on (Thanksgiving? you mean it’s the end of November already? it was Labor Day about an hour ago). October, we all know, is Exploding Head Month; I don’t know if there’s a name for November (except NaNoWriMo), but you have to figure that the month post-head-explosion can only be messy.

But in Olden Times, whatever long-term advance-planning professors might have done, I sure didn’t know about it. When I was an undergrad, a syllabus listed contact information, required texts, number (and sometimes due dates) of papers and/or exams, and maybe some general goals for the course or a note that it was a pre-requisite for something else. Schedules and assignments might be given as separate hand-outs, later, or maybe just announced in class.

And so, not knowing any better, I wrote syllabi like that when I started teaching, as a grad student. I taught in a writing-across-the-curriculum program that gave grad T.A.’s a great deal of autonomy (excellent training for being a professor). I made up more detailed schedules and assignments that covered 3-5 weeks at a time, and as we got to the end of one such segment, I’d make up a new one. Of course I had a general sense that students would write so many pages during the term and that we’d spend weeks 7-10 (or whatever) on Sir Gawain. But if in the event it turned out that three pages turned into a revision instead of a new paper, and if SGGK got weeks 8-11 so we’d have to read less Malory at the end, well, fine. Who (but me) would know how my plans had changed?

The great thing about that way of teaching, which I continued into my early years on the tenure track, was the ability it gave me to be flexible and responsive. If I found that a large chunk of the class needed work on thesis statements, then we’d work on thesis statements; if they were great with thesis statements but had no idea how to argue against possible objections to their ideas without feeling they were undermining their position, then we’d work on that kind of argumentation. And so on. I liked that. I wasn’t forced by the syllabus into spending time on topics that were unnecessary and boring for most of the class, and if interesting ideas came up in discussion, I could alter our trajectory so that we focused on, say, medieval castle construction instead of clothing, and create paper assignments accordingly.

Many things are much easier with fewer students, of course. Even though classes were bigger at LRU than they were at my graduate institution, I benefited from a reduced load in my first three years, 2-2 instead of 3-2, and so I had fewer students overall than I do now, and could manage this model effectively. Once I added the third course (and there were some years when I taught 3-3, to make the release available to hires who came after me), it got much harder to take stock of where each individual class or section was, three or four times a semester, and change course accordingly. It actually came as something of a revelation to me that I could plan the whole semester in advance and just stick to the plan. If this is Tuesday, it must be Madrid Marie de France.

Students like knowing what will be due when, of course, and I think it makes them feel secure (or something) to know that the professor is organized, has a plan, and will stick to it. But I think better teaching may happen when the plan gets thrown out, or is vague to start with, and the professor can respond to what interests the students and get the whole class to hare off in some unforeseen direction.

This doesn’t seem to fit with my other heretical ideas about more lecturing. But I think what both posts have in common is wanting to be truly student-centered: if what the class wants and needs is more lecture (that is, a stronger framework), then I’m willing to provide that; and if what they need is more short papers with outlining and revision stages, then I’d like to be able to do that; and if I find that they can manage the five-paragraph essay handily but have no idea how to construct a more complex, somewhat longer paper, I’d like to be able to teach that, without feeling locked into a particular structure.

As I write, I notice that I’m emphasizing teaching writing, which was not at all the idea I thought I was starting with. Perhaps I’m still, really, thinking about content vs. skills. It does seem like what students really want in a detailed syllabus is information about written requirements: how many papers, how long, due when, what the papers should do (the “what do you want?” question). I’m reasonably sure that the students are happy to let me decide most if not all of the content issues. But somehow I need to assess what they’re learning, and in an English class I am not willing to give multiple-choice exams to see what facts they can regurgitate about SGGK, and yet if I want papers that don’t make me want to cut my own head off I wind up needing to teach writing skills.

So. I was going to say, heretically, that I want to give up on the detailed syllabus and respond to what my classes need and/or find interesting; that I’d like to have an end goal in mind but not plan the route in detail; that the class should, ideally, be a quest. And I was going to lament that having lots of students, and the kinds of students that we have at LRU (complicated lives, can’t meet outside of class, need to plan library time and writing time well in advance) makes this quest-model rather difficult to put into practice. But if my real topic is still “what sort of writing assignments should I give” or “how to blend content and skills-based teaching,” then I have to start this essay over.

Not right now, though. I shall mull for awhile, and see what further thoughts, orthodox or heretical, occur to me.

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7 thoughts on “More heresy (plus nostalgia)

  1. Maybe it's a field specific thing, but I never experienced the kind of syllabus you are describing. All of the courses I took in college came with clear lists of readings to be done for particular days and due dates for papers and exams. Depending on the level of the course, there might be more (higher) or less (introductory) leeway, but especially in science and math courses, you knew exactly what problem sets you'd be doing when pretty much from day one (unless I am totally misremembering). So I wonder what it would be like to teach more fluidly. I can do that some in my graduate courses, but I still tend to give specific due dates for things. It's an interesting problem to think about!

  2. Interestingly, I've had to learn how to teach in this fluid (to use Fencing Bear's apt term) way now that I am teaching HS. I always received detailed syllabi as a college student, and always created them as a TA and as a professor, so naturally this is the way that I thought syllabi had to be constructed and courses had to be taught. And so when I started at FGS, I started writing out a complete syllabus … and hit the wall when I realized that the courses each met four times a week for an entire year — an overwhelming syllabus creation! So, glancing furtively at what teachers around me were doing (and foolishly not asking anyone about what to do, because I was afraid of looking like the brand-new HS teacher I in fact was), I gave the students on the first day a syllabus for only the first three weeks. And then, in the second week or so, I learned that all of my juniors would be missing a day for a fieldtrip, one I hadn't known about and thus hadn't accounted for in my syllabus. This is when I started learning the lesson — which I found very difficult — to have a roughed-out plan for the year but to make specific plans only a few weeks at a time, and to be willing to change even those more immediate plans if something arises. It's been an interesting transformation in my planning style, but I've come to embrace it for all of the positive reasons you point out in your post. I really can tailor what we're doing in class to what I think the students need most; just this term I completely changed my planned assignment because it became clear to me that the students weren't ready to tackle it and needed to do another kind of project first. Of course, as you say, number of students makes a difference, and I'm sure this is much more possible in an independent school than in a public one (especially because for the latter I think I'd have to file class plans ahead of time).

  3. WhatNow, I think you may have just made my point (not in this post, maybe in a comment somewhere else) that I'm now teaching high school to the undergrads and college to the grad students.

  4. I didn't even get a syllabus for a lot of the classes I took, at least that I remember. I seem to remember only assignments written on the board and a book list. Some of the classes must have had a syllabus, but I don't remember the elaborate scheduling that we now do.

  5. As a student, I had a sort of medium — syllabuses with lists of reading and projected dates — but we often deviated from these and no one was surprised. When I tell my students now that they need to be flexible, that we may get off lecture or discussion by a day or two, they seem mystified. I think it's because they are often not emotionally involved in thinking through what must come next — they want to write this down in their planner and not have it change so they don't have to think about what might most usefully happen next in their own education. On my own side: I think a lot of people, including me, are teaching in settings where the syllabus is now seen as a contract. Every campus I've ever taught on had a list of things that had to be included in the syllabus. I have found this increasingly frustrating: that just at the point that classroom technology is changing to the point that I could teach a class based entirely on my perception of what the class needs — including making decisions about readings based on what's interesting to the class — the administration around me is insisting more and more that I have to plan ahead exactly what will happen. The bookstore wants book orders five months in advance — just at the point at which theoretically things could be downloaded shortly before they were needed; the dean's office wants the exact grading percentages specified so that I have to do five papers I planned even if I discover during the term that three would be better; the students want a cast iron list of what will be discussed on any given day so they can flit in and out of the class without committing to a stream of instructing. I understand this on some level, also being a person who deals poorly with surprises, but I don't think the general trend is all that great in terms of me having the capacity to respond to what my students need instruction on (as opposed to defining a topic and then instructing it whether or not that serves anyone).

  6. I could say more but I'm on the road, will later.Did we both go to the same undergrad institution? I remember planned out syllabi for the large lecture courses. The more advanced in the discipline and the smaller the class, the more flexible it got.When I became a professor I tried to do the planned out route, for the reasons listed here. I found I couldn't – if I plan, I plan to go far too fast, and I plan for different students. In the places I've worked, one *has* to meet the students first to find out what kind of syllabus they need. I have even changed books and course topics once I meet the students, so I can teach something that fits their interests and skill level. It may have to be more advanced or less, or what will interest them so they will be able to have their intellects kick in may be quite different than what I've predicted. This is for an institution which functions as junior college for some, R1 PhD granting place for others, and where there is no agreement on what learning goals should be, what sophomore level is, etc., and where students take your class because it fits a requirement and their schedules, not because they are able to handle the topic you've announced.So now, I have the vague schedules (although I never change exam or paper due dates) of yore. I order a lot of books but tell students not to buy them until we get to them, because we may not use those which are there or we may decide other ones are better for us.I am slightly exagerrating, but you get my drift.

  7. On syllabus as contract – you can still nail down a lot of specifics in it that you won't change. It's tedious but useful when you have people not ready for school, etc., and who think you're more like their policeman, social worker, CPS officer, welfare officer, which is how many freshmen see faculty now.But yes, college is now high school and the PhD is now college.

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