Processing, 5 November

Researching syllabus-as-form and trying to find useful examples from writers who have used the syllabus in their memoirs (or autobiographies or creative non-fiction…still not sure how to name what I’m doing in this project) is difficult. At this point, early in my process, I’m trying to be broad and read a wide range of things related to the syllabus.

This morning I came across an online article by Rebecca Schuman, an alt-academic/academic columnist, bemoaning how cumbersome and ridiculously lengthy college syllabi are now. She argues that the shift from concise 1-2 page documents, the standard in the 90s when she (and I) were in college, to the 20+ page behemoths that professors currently distribute, signals the “decline and fall of the American university.”

She writes:

Syllabus bloat is more than an annoyance. It’s a textual artifact of the decline and fall of American higher education. Once the symbolic one-page tickets for epistemic trips filled with wonder and possibility, course syllabi are now but exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality, from fourth instances of plagiarism to tornadoes. The syllabus now merely exists to ensure a “customer experience” wherein if every box is adequately checked, the end result—a desired grade—is inevitable and demanded, learning be damned. You want to know why, how, and to what extent the university has undergone a full corporate metamorphosis? In the words of every exasperated professor ever, “It’s on the syllabus.”

Rebecca Schuman

Is her discussion useful for me as I attempt to think through how to format and structure my book project? Not sure. It did remind me that while I enjoy constructing a syllabus, especially the process of crafting assignments, picking readings and creating a story to tell and then, as a class, collectively shape, I don’t especially enjoy its format. So, I probably don’t want to structure my book project as a syllabus. I think that that would be bit cheesy anyway.

Questions: Why the Syllabus? What is it about the syllabus that I especially enjoyed? How do I translate that into a book format?

After writing and then reading my reflections above, I jotted down the following in my blue notebook: What do I like about the syllabus? It’s an invitation to engage in a conversation, to participate in shaping a story.

Is “invitation to engage” a recognized function of the syllabus? After skimming through a few online resources, including The Many Purposes of Course Syllabi: Which are Essential and Useful? ,  the closest function I could find was syllabus as contract between the students and instructor (described at length in The Purposes of a Syllabus). This contract is formal and lays out responsibilities, expectations and rules of behavior. When I constructed my syllabi, I liked keeping rules and expectations to a minimum. Excessive rules often create a hostile environment. I don’t like the idea of a contract. Too formal. Too many rules. More of a request than an invitation.

Did I envision my syllabi as just invitations to engage? I need to think about that some more. I also want to explore the idea of the syllabus as a resource (guide?) for engaging as well.

What stories am I trying to tell?

4 November 2015/1:30 PM
Before I realized that I was ready to start this book project, I began reading and thinking a lot about memoirs. Did this thinking/reading start when I requested and then almost finished Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir? Now I can’t remember. The memoirs that I’ve read, and the theories about memoirs and remembering one’s past experiences that I’ve studied, focus a lot on accessing and communicating inner, and usually uncomfortable (embarrassing, painful) truths through the details of one’s life. Is that what I want to write?

What story am I trying/wanting to tell? How much of it is about the specific details of my life and how much of it is about the ideas/theories/authors/experiences that have moved me, shaped me, consumed me? For me, it is about the latter.

Having read 15 more pages since my last post on Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, I’m seeing that in her book she hopes to give an account of the evolution of her ideas about images, drawing, thinking and creating art and how she came to teach them (and still does) at UW Madison.

Maybe my book project could be about the evolution (or development…what other non-liner/progress word can I use here?) of my undisciplined approach to living–thinking, feeling, writing, creating?

Syllabi Stories?

4 November 2015/11:30 AM
Last week, I woke up in the middle of the night with a fragment of an idea about how to structure the second volume of my Undisciplined stories: Syllabus. What does that mean? I’m still trying to figure that out. What I do recall from my 1 am, or was it 2 am?, musings was that I like/d the process of crafting the course syllabus. I imagined it as a form of storytelling. A form in which I provided a guide for exploring ideas/theories/authors, where students didn’t just passively consume a Narrative about the course topic, but engaged with my story and challenged it, built upon it and transformed it through assignments, in-class activities, readings and discussions.

In my new book project, I’m not interested in offering up any straightforward account of my experiences as a teacher. Instead, I want to explore and experiment with how I might be able to continue being a teacher beside and besides the academy. What do I do with all of the stories (in papers, blog posts, syllabi) that I crafted within the academy? What do those stories mean to me? Who do I share them with and how? I think incorporating syllabi and/or using the syllabus as a way to structure this project could be key.

Does this make any sense? I’m struggling to make my thoughts coherent. That’s okay because this struggle is a huge part of the writing, thinking, feeling and troublemaking process for me. 

To help with my struggle, I’m researching other people’s stories that involve a syllabus, or things found on a syllabus, like a reading list or workbook/writing assignments. I’m hoping this research will inspire me, providing examples of creative (and effective) ways of using the syllabus to structure my story.

This morning I started reading Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor. Wow. I’ve just read the first three pages and it inspired me to write this post and provided me with another interesting source, Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice.

I just requested this book from the public library. At one point in the video, he suggests that his book, which was originally a course syllabus, is a how-to manual. I do not envision my current book to be a how-to manual. I want to offer some guidance about life beside/s, but I don’t want to frame it as how to do this, or how to be this. I’m reminded of the first part of the title of my presentation with KCF years ago: This is not a how-to manual, but an invitation to engage. What might that look like?

My Undisciplined Story

A few years ago, I wrote a book documenting and exploring the “thinking, feeling, writing and troublemaking life of a student.” It was called Unofficial Student Transcripts. I’ve imagined writing a follow-up to that book in which I explore my life as a teacher/educator/mother. Fragments of ideas have been simmering in the back of my mind for over a year (or more). Now I seem to be ready to take this project more seriously with some research. Here are a few things I’m reading to get me thinking about how to structure/format this second book:

Brandon Schrand's Work Cited
Brandon R. Schrand’s Work Cited
Lynda Barry's Syllabus
Lynda Barry’s Syllabus