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Traci Gardner pointed out in her recent post (See Revising for a More Visual Syllabus: The Schedule) that summer is the time many of us re-think and revise syllabi. This work may seem peripheral to our teaching, since it is relegated to summer break, but it is not. As Barclay Barrios pointed out in his reflections last year (See What’s a Syllabus?) , when we compose syllabi, we make “visual essays/arguments/statements” about the courses we are preparing to teach. Our syllabi, in essence, embody a number of critical course concepts: rhetorical choice, multimodality, and documentation (as Gardner’s visual syllabus elements illustrate), or discourse communities, among others.
As we write a syllabus, we wrangle with previous failures and successes, we experiment, and we comb through conference handouts and sticky notes on journal articles, pondering theory and borrowing from the work we have seen our colleagues doing. This composing work is energizing; we imagine what is possible and what we might be able to accomplish with our students. “This time,” I tell myself, “I will get it right.”
Two years ago, in an effort to improve my syllabi and lay some groundwork for feedback and revision in my courses, I gave the following instructions to students on the first day of class:
- With the members of your group, review the syllabus critically. Consider the following questions and write your comments on the discussion board in Blackboard. Make sure that you include all group members’ names:
- How would you reformat the syllabus to make it easier for a student to read and understand?
- Would you change any of the following to make the syllabus easier for a student to read and understand?
- Order of presentation
- Language used
- Medium (i.e., print vs. digital)
- Text features (font, font size, layout, etc.)
- Anything else?
- What questions do you have about the CONTENT of the syllabus? Make a note of these.
I had multiple goals for this assignment, including establishing a sense of community, getting students to read the syllabus carefully, and inviting reader-response early in the term. After the activity, I reviewed student responses and revised my syllabus; I made significant changes in arrangement of content, moving much of the boilerplate material required by the college to the end of the document and making the schedule of assignments more accessible. I also created a “Where to find it” box for the first page to direct students to page numbers or digital resources for information they would most likely ask about during the term. The next semester I repeated the activity and added sidebars with advice and frequently asked questions.
In both semesters, students were surprised when I returned to class with a revised syllabus; I don’t think they expected me to consider their feedback seriously. A discussion of the choices that I had to make to meet both their needs (as my primary readers) and the requirements of our college and its accreditors (a secondary but significant audience) helped me introduce key course concepts, and it also highlighted some very real quandaries I faced as a writer.
For example, my students were put off by the language of the official course description and learning outcomes, and they recommended that I change them; in fact, students quickly came to relish their position of authority as my intended readers, assuming a directive stance in their feedback. We talked about some options: could I re-word that particular section? (No, the official language is mandatory.) Could I create two syllabi, one for students and one for the official record? (Possibly, but I am required to make the official version available to students, and writing two versions seems like unnecessary work.) Could I include the official jargon and provide footnotes with definitions of terms? (Yes, but would students really read a footnoted syllabus?) We decided there was no great solution, but in response to their ideas, I did move that section of the document to the end, and I created “so what” sidebars to paraphrase key points.
After two semesters, I abandoned the syllabus feedback activity. I was satisfied with the syllabus revisions, and I didn’t give too much thought to the pedagogical potential of continuing. But now, looking back, I see that this activity engaged students, in a preliminary way, with the threshold concepts around which I structure my courses, especially in my upper level ESL and co-requisite IRW courses.
It might be time to resurrect the syllabus feedback activity for the fall, especially as I am reworking my course to emphasize difficulty, writing about language, and multimodality. These will be threshold concepts, strange and troubling for my students. If I invite them to explore points of difficulty, linguistic choices, and the effects of visual design (and perhaps even audio design, as I experiment with screencasts of my syllabus) on the first day, I can establish a tone and a framework for the weeks that follow.
And perhaps the syllabus review belongs at the end of the class as well. I could revise the end-of-term reflection assignment I described in a previous post to include a rhetorical analysis of my syllabus and the concepts contained in it (See All's Well That Ends Well). It would be interesting to see how students’ perceptions as readers of my syllabus change after fifteen weeks of instruction and practice.
I doubt the first and last day syllabus review activities will yield exactly what I envision, but I’ll have next summer to tweak them again.
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