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.