I’ve been crafting syllabi for over 15 years now. Perhaps “crafting” is not quite the right word for my earliest ham-fisted attempts at stumbling my way through, but these days I’m reasonably pleased at how my syllabi look.
With something one’s been doing this long, you’d think the process would be reasonably easy at this point, right? Yes, but: in thinking more like an artist and less like an administrator, that restless “must make it look/feel better” feeling still pops up periodically.
About a year ago, I read an article on how to create a more engaging syllabus. The overall philosophy was great; the linked examples, not so much. The design-nerd in me was appalled by some of their clutter-y visual decisions and fatal font choices. Still, my big realizations in being challenged to re-think my syllabi were these:
1. KISS. I have a tendency to be wordy. My syllabi were unnecessarily complicated, and I needed to simplify. In certain classes, I often had ELLs, so this wasn’t doing them any favors, either. Language is cleaner and simpler now.
2. Lack of visuals or other engaging emphatics, like interesting quotes. Hello: I teach visual arts courses. It’s not that hard to lead with an image. I took on an additional personal challenge to always employ primary images by artists of color, usually female, since there’s still a painful dearth of these points of reference as anything other than an afterthought.
3. Lifelessness. Anyone who knows me knows I’ve got personality to spare, but this hasn’t been as evident in my syllabi. Some of this might be called “professionalism,” of course, but if the purpose of teaching (and by extension the syllabus) is to engage, challenge and inspire, then a syllabus should let students know both what they’re getting into AND why they should be excited/nervous about it. I’m still working on this one: it’s a challenge to balance the necessary formalities with a little more personalization.
I’ve got a pretty good handle on how to organize the basics–course description, expectations, grading, assignments, calendar. Depending on the school, there’s often other mandatory information to include such as disability resources, academic integrity policy, course outcomes, lab fees, etc. (The past couple of years, I’ve been compelled to include a depressing number of warnings and consequences regarding smartphone abuse, given student addictions.)
I’m musing on this now because the spring semester is starting soon, and I’m working on a new batch of syllabi. Some of this was spurred on by Carlos Villa’s old syllabi-as-artworks, two of which hang on the walls of my apartment, reminding me every day how to think differently about teaching and learning as a creative enterprise. The newer “some-of-this” is because I just read Lynda Barry‘s “Syllabus,” which is an extraordinary, generous, cockamamie book showing how she sees and employs her wonderfully screwy-but-structured syllabi. Here are a couple of examples:
I’m not sure I can overstate how much joy it’s given me reading and looking at these. Granted, there are somewhat special conditions governing Barry’s ability to do things her own way, but there are still some very basic things at work in these examples that can inspire more creative possibilities for many of us. Imagination and exuberance are everywhere on these pages, and I love it.
Still, much as I’d love to hand-draw myself as Professor Chewbacca, I don’t think that my ever-perilous adjunct status confers upon me quite the same level of carte blanche that Barry has. A woman can still dream. Here, a couple of examples of the tidier state of some recent syllabi of my own: