Building a Syllabus: Students’ Suggestions for Meaningful Engagement

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This spring I will teach a second-semester first-year writing course that engages literary studies through the lenses of rhetoric and composition. In other words, the course aims to present literary readings (poetry, prose, drama) and invites students to engage these texts rhetorically, with careful attention to language and its uses, audience, purpose, and persuasion. In creating this course syllabus, I will adhere to the writing program constraints, but will be able to choose my own readings to fashion the required assignments.

It helps to teach my passions, of course, but it is necessary as well to consider how to introduce students to readings and means of approaching readings that will open doors in their own living, thinking, reading, and writing. Reading and writing need to be more than school subjects and a set of strategies or commodities.

At the same time, I also want to include readings that will open the way to help me learn from my students. Perhaps this was the most important lesson learned from last semester’s Final Writing Project: Create Your Own Course Syllabus. Since students could choose their own subjects for this assignment, I was able to gauge a wide variety of general interests through three sets of classes of racially, ethnically, and linguistically diverse traditional-age college students at two different institutions. The most common subjects included:

  • Creative arts classes for non-majors (music, filmmaking, comics)
  • Health: (mental and physical health, self-help, food studies)
  • Courses in a special topic not offered by their colleges (sports science and history, religious studies and social justice,  business theory and practice)


My sense in planning the syllabus is to introduce literary readings through these general lenses, while keeping in mind the concerns of students. “I don’t like poems that don’t rhyme,” one student told me last semester, and then recommended that I listen to Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” of which, at the time, I had only passing awareness.


The students’ interests in comics offered additional considerations. After we finished our second writing project on Black Panther (Listening to Students: Revising an Assignment and Teaching Black Panther) last fall, and they wrote their reflections, two students included long lists of movies I needed to see to better understand Black Panther’s place in the Marvel Universe. For students who have come of age in diverse racial, ethnic, and linguistic spaces, Black Panther and other films in the Marvel Universe are not only allegorical, but also material reality.


In other words, in real life students have faced situations equivalent to Black Panther’s most symbolic moments, such as journeying to the ancestral plane or creating community in the aftermath of war and destruction.In transitioning to college, students often struggle with unanticipated borders between home and school communities. In choosing readings for the spring semester course, I remember that such borders can be deeply complex and contested. I also remember how my own encounters with literary works helped me to navigate and negotiate the struggles of college transitions.


For example, I think back on my experience of reading Rimbaud’s poetry for the first time as an undergraduate. For my advisor, a specialist in French 19th century literature, Rimbaud’s work was an exemplar of French symbolist poetry. Yet for me  Rimbaud’s poems felt as real and as full of transcendent possibilities as life itself. In “Novel,” (“Roman” in French) Rimbaud writes:


Night in June! Seventeen years old! —We are overcome by it all

The sap is champagne and goes to our head . . .

We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips

Trembling there like a small insect . . .


These lines felt as ethereal as the popular culture worlds in which I lived as a teenager in the 1970s.  Rimbaud’s words were as resonant as the theme from Star Wars, and as poignant as Bowie’s genderqueer teenager in Rebel, Rebel. Popular art fused with the language hidden away in literary works unknown to me before college. In the midst of that fusion, the future opened before my eyes, allowing me to reach toward language and life experiences I had never before imagined. Literature, in my experience, remains a significant means of engaging with worlds outside of my own, and of envisioning futures beyond the limited scope of everyday life.


My hope is that the new syllabus will create a more fluid universe and collapse the binaries between the old and the new, remixing canons and drawing connections and similarities in spaces where the mind and the heart have been trained to perceive only difference and separation. These difficult times call for nothing less.

About the Author
Susan Naomi Bernstein (she/they) writes, teaches, and quilts, in Queens, NY. She blogs for Bedford Bits, and her recent publications include “The Body Cannot Sustain an Insurrection” in the Journal of Multimodal Rhetorics and “After Basic Writing” in TETYC. Her book is Teaching Developmental Writing. Other publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity. Susan also has published on Louisa May Alcott, and has exhibited her quilts in Phoenix, Arizona and Brooklyn, NY.