Saturday, August 16, 2008

Where's my syllabus?

I'm out west at the family homestead, seeing the relations, enjoying the weather, sleeping nine hours a night--and, oh yeah: slaving over my syllabi.

Now, my syllabi aren't those eight-page jobbies bursting with university bylaws, detailing every assignment, and showing off their author's facility with graphic-design software--but neither are they a single double-sided sheet consisting of contact information and a rough schedule of readings.

Syllabi are, of course, the first introduction that students get to me and my class, so I want an attractive and readable layout, an engaging descriptive paragraph or two, and a sufficiently detailed course outline. Syllabi are also a kind of contract: a document that can be referred to whenever there's a question about grading standards or the precise penalties for everything from absenteeism to plagiarism. But the real reason I take syllabus design so seriously--and why it feels so effortful--is my awareness that my syllabus is often the only thing standing between me and pedagogical disaster.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I have an awful lot of exchanges like this:
Student: "Hey, when are our second papers due?"

Me (feigning preoccupation): "In a couple of weeks. It's on the syllabus."

Student: "Okay, great. . . but I've got training around then, so I need to plan ahead--is it before or after the eighteenth?"

Me: "It's on the syllabus. Check it when you get home."
Or this:
Student 1: "Which play are we starting next week? I don't have my syllabus with me."

Me: "Macbeth."

Student 2: "Did we change that? It says here that we're reading Othello. . ."

Me: "Oh! Well, if the syllabus says we're reading Othello, then we're reading Othello."
In other words, I often have no idea what we're doing more than a class or two in advance. Once the semester starts, I rely on my syllabus to order my readings logically and to ensure that certain topics (not to mention assignments) appear at just the right moment. This isn't to say that I never make changes mid-semester, but usually they're minor responses to immediate exigencies. A well-considered syllabus keeps me on track--as well as performing the even more useful function of allowing me to appear to be on track.

But as I've been working on these three syllabi, I've been thinking what a pity it is that I don't have one for my life, or at least the next three to five years of it. I wouldn't expect it to be more than a rough document, but I'd happily put in whatever effort were required if I could sketch out with some assurance when (and if) certain events might occur: home ownership? a book contract? marriage? tenure?

I mean, sure: I have a sense of the appropriate order of things when it comes to my professional life, but I don't have the slightest idea what the personal side will look like or even what I want it to look like--much less how the two sides will intersect.

What I need is a much more experienced, much more long-range syllabus builder to rough that stuff out for me, lay down the standards, expectations, and penalties, and tell me what it's all about. Then I'd know whether it's a class I can commit to.


Sisyphus said...

It sounds like you also crave what Medieval Woman blogged about a while ago: that writing partner who sat her down and planned out the entire research/book writing schedule, with room for having a kid, working backwards from tenure.

I want someone to do that for me with the book and also the social life!

Dr. Virago said...

Ah, a life sylllabus. Wow, wouldn't that be WONDERFUL?! I want mine to tell me when it's time to ask Bullock, "So, are we going to bother to get married or what?"

Btw, I laughed at your "If the syllabus says we're reading Othello..." dialogue. I do that *all* the time!

Flavia said...

Sis: yes, it's the personal stuff that's the bitch. Within certain parameters, I can work out a career syllabus--not everything's under my control, but large parts are, or at least partially.

But the rest of my life involves so many things over which I don't have control, or input (or even full knowledge about).

Fretful Porpentine said...

:: blinks ::

I have to say that I think a syllabus for life would be a special kind of hell, but this may have to do with the fact that I always score waaaaay over on the P side on those Myers-Briggs tests.

Anonymous said...

"Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

A life syllabus would be nice, lol.

neo said...

As I am the sort of student who reads a syllabus obsessively and then promptly loses it to some abyss of crumpled-paper doom, and then skates by with falsified grace on a wing and a prayer, relying on her (already faltering, at her ripe young age) memory for deadlines and necessities, I can only imagine that the same would hold true for a life-syllabus. I cannot, thus, imagine that the results would be at all different from the present unplanned series of happy (in the early, more than modern, sense) accidents.

And there, I think, dear Flavia, is the difference between you and me.

Flavia said...

Neo: well, it would be dull indeed if we truly knew what was going to happen to us at every stage of the game--and the one thing I have always feared more than feeling utterly at sea is feeling trapped.

So perhaps what I really want is a life syllabus to give me a sense of security and direction. . . which I can then crumple up and disregard.

The History Enthusiast said...

I get those questions all the time students usually think I'm crazy, because I don't always remember what is happening next week.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Maybe it's me, but I really wouldn't want to know when the final exam is scheduled.

Flavia said...

Not knowing when the exam is scheduled = every anxiety dream I have ever had.

(At least as subject if not as cause. . . but surely the two are related.)

Doctor Cleveland said...

But the final exam for *life*? Do you know who proctors that exam?

I'm more interested in the extension policy, actually ....

Flavia said...

Please note (Dr. C, Neo, Fretful, and others) that I am not wishing--however seriously or unseriously--for a syllabus for my entire life, just the next three to five years of it. And I hope my life will last rather longer than that.

I don't imagine there would be any exams, in any case--just lots of in-class essays. (The theoretical designer of this theoretical course is more of a softy--more forgiving of missed assignments, failures of retention, etc.--than is Dr. Fescue.)

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Laughed out loud at your two dialogs -- because I have SO had those conversations before. I rely on my syllabuses to tell the students what to do because I usually don't know until 10 minutes before class starts myself. (Okay, *maybe* the night before ...)

BTW, have you read the novel /Special Topics in Calamity Physics/ by Marisha Pessl? It has a great riff on the syllabus as an organizational structure that gives meaning to life in the first few pages. Pretty good novel, too.

Anonymous said...

Hm, I always feel like the most important part of my syllabus is the "significant learning outcomes." And I'd LOVE a life syllabus that told me what my learning outcomes were supposed to be! Not, you know, the schedule.

Jack said...

I will dream tonight of being sucked toward a whirlpool and buoyed up by a coffin made of syllabi.

And you know, if the Reaper is going to come with an exam, I don't think I'd mind knowing the date. Always been a pretty good crammer.

Flavia said...

A coffin made of syllabi? That's your fourth margarita talking.

So good to have you BACK.