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.”
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.”
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.