A Short Story about a Long Syllabus

Posted: October 15, 2013 in Uncategorized
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I started the day with a challenge. Find a syllabus to use for my badge #2 assignment in the #Beyondlettergrades Mooc. I wasn’t about to settle for any plain, boring, or simple syllabus. No, I wanted something different, interesting, difficult even. I wasn’t just trying to pocket the badge, I wanted to really learn something. Luckily, my search paid off right away. I clicked on Learn from the Best: 10 Course Syllabi by Famous Authors and was off and reading. The first syllabus that intrigued me was Lynda Barry’s syllabus for her class “The Unthinkable Mind” at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

It was very creative and interesting, but it wouldn’t work for this assignment, there was no real structure to the grading or any mention of letter grades. It’s refreshing to see a syllabus that mentions an assignment like watching a Carl Sagan video, while eating candy, and doing coloring with crayons. Lynda Barrys’ syllabus was exactly the opposite of typical and may be a more effective way to get students interested in the learning available in this course. In order to earn the badge though, I had to answer a series of questions. That didn’t seem possible for this syllabus, so I moved on.

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Most of the syllabi from famous authors were pretty esoteric. They included poems and quotes, and were often merely lists of books or stories. This didn’t make me happy. I was ready to pick apart an unsuspecting syllabus, and stomp on it while questioning it’s real purpose in facilitating student learning.  Then while clicking on the 10th of 10, I found it.

It was dark and grey; written with a  typewriter using single space, and it was long. 7 pages of rules and lists; assignments and warnings. Laying down the law with section titles like REQUIRED TEXTS, COURSE RULES AND PROCEDURES, and WEIGHTED DETERMINANTS OF FINAL GRADE.  It was complex and  defiant, even adding a section that listed Reasons why a student would plausibly decide not to remain enrolled in this section of English 67.

So I pounced on it, dialing up my questions provided by Dr. Bernard Bull.

First question – What was the syllabus that you reviewed? (course, grade level, etc.)

This syllabus was for English 67 Literary Interpretation at Pomona College. The instructor was David Foster Wallace.  I hadn’t heard of him so I asked Siri. Turns out he is an author known for very long books, one thousand page books. I guess this syllabus reflected that tendency to write long complex texts. It turns out this syllabus is quite celebrated, there is a post from a former student at a la Sophie  with comments from other students about the discussions that took place. There is also a page from the University of Texas archives, which has details on this syllabus, and other’s like it, along with links to other work. David Foster Wallace has quite a tragic story, but his books and syllabi live on through the internet.

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Second Question – What are the limitations of the grading plan?

There are many.

1. Requiring participation. Even from ” the clinically or cripplingly shy. 2 Grade dependent on timeliness of students performance-“You are required to do every last iota of the reading and writing assigned”- “There is no such thing as Falling a Little Behind’- “Chronic Lack of preparation will lower your grade one whole number”. 3. Heavy weight to early assignments – “There will 11 unannounced writing assignments(mini-papers) Essays 1&2 -15%;  Essay 3 – 30% ; Mini-papers- 20%; Attendance 20%.

Third question– What is the best grade one could earn without knowing much in the course?

Fourth question -What is the worst grade one could earn while knowing a great deal?

Determining the best and worst grade possible is tough.  Based on the tone of this syllabus, achieving a good grade is a difficult task. All the assignments are subject to this instructors opinion of the students writing, as is the “participation, presentations, improvement, and  alacrity of carriage”. David Foster Wallace also states that something graded with an A+ would have to be “Mind Blowingly Good”, and that based on 331 recorded students the average grade this instructor has given is between a B and a B-.

Last question- What did I learn from this exercise?

Certainly that there are a lot of different interpretations of a syllabus, and that they are very personalized for each instructor. They seem to reflect the instructors philosophy on teaching and learning. A syllabus that is demanding of a students attention and  actions does not seem very “learner centered”.

Beyond discussions of the purpose and effectiveness of using letter grades, the question becomes -why do instructors conduct their classes like they are a bootcamp? As if the students have been drafted into a course that needs to break them down first, in order for the learning to occur. The last I checked, going to a university was a volunteer endeavor.

In this age of abundant information availability, Moocs and Kahn Academy, potential students have a lot of choices. It seems that old school instructors might want to examine their pedagogy and consider ideas by Dr. Bernard Bull and Alfie Kohn. They might want to incorporate a different philosophy of learning into their syllabus that is more like what Amy Burvall considers for her class  project guidelines. She has developed some  “project specs” that are “general enough to fit every project and every student – broad enough not to stifle anyone’s creativity but meaty enough to guide them in the direction they should go”. She lists them this way”

1. Make it beautiful

2. Make it relevant.

3. Make it poignant

4. Make it unique

5. Make it transparent

I see more value in asking a student to make something unique rather then be concerned with their alacrity of carriage.

So bottom line, what did I learn? Quite a lot. I feel I have earned my badge.

What do you think?

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