By Jerry Green
Confession time: I really enjoy writing syllabi. I like the challenge of building a cohesive structure out of numerous options in a limited space. The best analogy I can think of, if this does anything for you, is rolling an RPG character. I remember being invited to play D&D years ago, and while I never really into the game itself, I loved the character creation part (and I really like KotOR, Dragon Age, etc). You have a small set of points to use to build a character that has to be interesting and fill a certain class role. Designing a syllabus is the same, with the number of meetings as points and the kind of class (survey, deep dive, etc) as the, well, class. You have so many possibilities, but also so many constraints, and getting things to click just right is a joyous feeling.
So I think a lot about writing syllabi, and I’ll be sharing my thoughts on a range of topics. I’ll devote future posts to specific issues, like how much reading to assign or how to connect material to assignments and learning outcomes, and I’ll try to be as specific and practical as I can. But I wanted to start off the series with a kind of mission statement (or really, just a complaint about one of my pet peeves).
Here’s the tl;dr version: Inertia is a cardinal sin of syllabus design.
Aristotle tells us that every virtue has two corresponding vices. I think of inertia has one of the vices corresponding to something like ‘proper planning’. The other vice would be perfectionism or reinventing the wheel or something like that. But since the latter is both rarer and less harmful, I’ll leave it aside for now.
Here’s an example of what I have in mind by ‘inertia’. Suppose you’re set to teach a new course, and you’re at the initial stage of putting a syllabus together. Odds are, you’re going to have ‘Develop critical thinking skills’ as a learning outcome, and ‘midterm and final exams’ as assignments. Almost everybody does, right? But here’s the problem: exams don’t do a very good job at either developing or measuring critical thinking skills. So you’ve already got a mismatch between two key parts of your class, and you’ve barely started planning. But you might not notice, because its so common to use midterms and finals that you didn't even really think about it.
That’s why inertia is bad. There’s a not unreasonable assumption that philosophy classes have a standard format for a reason: our predecessors were smart people, after all. It wouldn’t have been set up with way without a good reason, and if it didn’t work we would have changed it by now. But unfortunately those assumptions aren’t quite right. Its often the case that we always do things this way because we’ve always done things this way.
Admittedly all this is pretty obvious in the abstract. That’s part of what makes inertia so nefarious: it tends to be almost subconscious. If you ask someone ‘How are you designing your syllabus?’, they aren’t going to reply ‘Oh, I think I’ll just uncritically do whatever first comes to mind’. And if you asked in hindsight why they did this rather than that, they’d be able to give you some understandable reason. But even so, it’s really easy to fall into bad habits, especially when you’re putting together a new class outside your area with little prep time.
So the first step in good syllabus design, IMHO, is to make sure you’re consciously reflecting on how and why you’re making whatever decisions you make. It may turn out that having a midterm and final exam makes sense, for example if you’re teaching a logic class or you have 100 students and no help with grading. The problem comes when you go with the obvious choice, or with whatever you did when you took the class in undergrad, without making sure that your design choices work in the context of the whole course. Even if you end up with a pretty traditional course, putting together reflectively will result in a much better finished product than what you'd end up with if you succumb to inertia.
In case you aren’t sold yet, here are some specific problems that have inertia as their root cause:
1) The class as no cohesive structure. Rather, you move from one topic to the next without any real connections. And trust me, students can feel this, with makes them feel lost and eventually disinterested. And you’ll likely have to waste a lot of time scene-setting or reminding on what you’ve already done or referring to material you haven’t covered yet.
2) The class in unrepresentative. If you assign works based on who first comes to mind, or on whatever the leading anthology is, you’re going to miss a lot of relevant possibilities. For instance, I was putting together an early modern class, and I felt compelled to put some of Locke’s 2nd Treatise in the political section simply because its important and influential. But it didn’t fit very well with what surrounded it, and it seemed redundant since I had the Essays earlier. And then I thought, ‘Well, why not Adam Smith instead of Locke?’ And then I thought, ‘Wait, why not Sophie de Grouchy instead of Smith?!’ Now I have (i) a manageable amount of text, (ii) by an under-appreciated author, that (iii) fits the context of that part of class better and (iv) would be more fun than Locke anyway.
3) You pick a bad book. This is a brutal problem, and it’s hard to avoid, because picking a good book takes a lot of work. But I’ve seen many of my friends go with whatever title they first recognize, or with a book just because a colleague used it. And then they get about three weeks into the term and realize that they disagree with the book constantly. And now they’re stuck: if they stay true to the text, they’re going to be frustrated and demoralized the whole semester, and if they start correctng the text students are going to be annoyed that they have to read something that isn’t right, and so they’ll stop. Bad news either way.
4) The assignments don’t make sense. As I mentioned above, you can get a mismatch between material, assignments, and outcomes if you’re not careful. For example, blue book exams may be good for some things (comprehension and application, maybe), but aren’t great for careful analysis or good writing. A take-home essay may be better in some cases. Or maybe exams and papers can be replaced by something even better.
5) You get stuck in a rut. Often you’ll end up assigned the same course repeatedly. After a while, it’ll get boring. That’s bad for you, and it’s bad for your students. And it’s pretty likely that even a course you really like can benefit from mixing things up a little.
OK, so that’s my diatribe against inertia. If you never read another thing I write about syllabus design, I'll be happy if you don't simply go with the flow next time you're making up a course. Stay tuned for future posts about how to develop the virtue of proper planning instead.