I have long loathed all the conventions of syllabus writing, largely because I have seen how semester after semester, we all put so much stock into what we put into them—read my post from the fall and witness how much I agonized last semester about typeface sizes as a way of procrastinating from actually writing the damn thing, and read about my deepish dive into accessibility statements—just to see them discarded within weeks. That is not to say that I don’t think those things are important to consider, but I also sometimes think that we fetishize the syllabus and its contents, agonizing about what it says about us and our beliefs, as a way of imagining we have more control than we do. Sure, it gives you a sense of comfort in times of duress. (How often are we told to put things in because, you know, “CYA”?” Cover your ass”? -a big refrain in public education.) And when students mess up or don’t comply, it’s a great, exculpatory relief for us to be able to say, “Well it’s on the syllabus! You should have read it!” (Do you say “in” or “on”? I say “on” for some reason. Probably regional.) I also know that I’m insecure about my inability to predict or pace my courses when I’m planning them out. I have been in a classroom teaching literature and writing for eleven years now, and I really struggle with this.
Also, I know that our institutions scrutinize our syllabi. I suspect partly that is because they are scrutable, material objects. (One piece of feedback I received on mine was that my list of books was not in MLA format. I didn’t know that was a requirement. I don’t think it is–it’s just an unwritten convention of my department.)
So much energy gets expended upon syllabi while our actual teaching and the ways in which we treat students go unscrutinized. And that’s fine with me. I’m thankful for the relative freedom I have day-to-day in the college classroom, so please, scrutinize my syllabi all you want! Public school teachers in New York City—where I taught high-school English for four years—can expect unannounced drop-ins and often paranoia-inducing surveillance (and don’t get me started on the cameras put into classrooms in Eva Moskowitz’s charter schools). And I never had to write a syllabus when I taught high school! (We had a curriculum we could follow. Totally different.)
This is all to say that this semester, I’ve written an essay, and I’m slapping it right on the front of the syllabus. Sounds boring. Probably. But at least it includes a picture of Marvin Gaye, whose What’s Going On? album and song are going to structure the theme of the course.
I’m putting this all there partly to have something to point to when I tell them to write an essay. It foregrounds the actual work of our course: writing about stuff we care about. It shows that I am a writer too, and I am insecure about how I write. It does things I expect of their writing: it includes parenthetical citations, probably has some errors or typos, includes a block quotation, and has an MLA Works Cited at the end. The essay also rationalizes the course’s focus (read the end), which is inspired by the story I read about why Obie Benson wrote the song. (Al Benson helped write the lyrics.) After witnessing police shoot thousands of protesters during the “Bloody Thursday” protest in Berkeley in May 1969 . . . No, just read what I wrote, because I find myself on the verge of re-writing the essay. The story is moving and felt just so pertinent in this era of MAGA hats and walls and family separations.
One other thing I’d like to reflect on here is that when I was writing the essay for the syllabus, I was noticing the way in which I was thinking about the students reading it. A lot (most?) of my students were not born in the U.S., so they might not know about things like the “National Guard” or the fact that Ronald Regan was governor of California and was also a U.S. president in the 1980s. I assume also that a bunch of my U.S.-born students wouldn’t know this. Heck, I didn’t actually know exactly what the National Guard was until I just looked it up. There are ways of presenting students with sophisticated ideas (which they can handle) that don’t presume prior knowledge in a patronizing or punitive way. I try to attend to that in my classes and by telling students to look up things on their phones the second they don’t know a word, or when they haven’t heard of an event. (I also really try to change the narrative they’ve heard from a lot of profs and teachers not to use Wikipedia. As someone who edits Wikipedia for fun and is familiar with its standards, I think this is garbage advice, and I bet literally everyone who gives this advice uses Wikipedia.) This is particularly important when you teach a lot of first-generation college students and students from other countries. You have to make things seem accessible, and you have to not be a jerk about it. As an aside: I was just in England for a research trip, and I didn’t even know how to order a god damn hot cup of delicious coffee with half and half in it! Because the whole culture of coffee in England is TOTALLY different, and I just got confused at every turn. I mean, that’s just coffee, not my college education. And I literally study British language and history and literature as a profession. I tweeted about this here:
I plan to force students to read my essay on the first day of class. I’ll use it as an opportunity to teach them how to annotate. We’ll talk about the citations and how they’re punctuated. (And I’ll see who the confident readers are based on who volunteers.) We’ll talk about the fact that I left in curse-words from the original quotations—I anticipate that this will shock some of them. And we will talk about the questions I raise at the end of the essay. After we read this, I’m going to show them Cardi B’s Twitter video about the wall as an example of how to approach inquiry like this. She’s well-informed about politics and political debates, she’s a Dominican from the Bronx—like tons of my students, and she’s asking provocative questions about things that don’t make sense in the world that should be fixed. Like the fact that people are working without getting paid on behalf of a president who wants to build a wall. She also raises issues of “respectability” (cf Higgenbotham) that I want to talk about.
To end the first class, I will let students write for a bit about questions they have about “what’s going on” in the world today. To raise the stakes a little bit, to make it more fun, and to adjust them to moving around and publicly sharing their ideas with their classmates, I’ll let them loose to put some of their questions on the board. I hope it will be entertaining, and I also hope that it will make them interested in the course. For a lot, if not most of these students, it will be LITERALLY THEIR FIRST DAY EVER OF COLLEGE, and I want them to feel like their voices are interesting and needed. I read somewhere that something like 60% of college students never talk in their classes, so I hope to put these students in the 40% by the end of the first day!