Tag Archives: syllabi

FIRST DAY: Syllabus musings with MARVIN GAYE and CARDI B

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!

First-day activities: The Syllabus Scavenger Hunt

I always hated the first days of college courses because they were so boring: professors just read through their syllabi. Blah blah blah you will need to buy this stuff blah blah blah here is how your grade breaks down. I was like, “I can read this myself” (obviously I wouldn’t), and “this is boring” (still true).

As a professor, I have done the thing where I pass out the syllabus and say, in my affected “I’m like you; I’m cool” voice: “I know you guys can read and will do so on your own time.” But then I also spend The Whole Semester, like everyone else in my profession, answering questions that are answered by the syllabus. I will have that annoyed-professor tone that we all get when we do that. There are tons of memes online about this very topic. There are even t-shirts you can get, which I’m actually going to get.

Meme of It's in the Syllabus
Meme of It’s in the Syllabus

So then I did the thing where I read through the syllabus like my own professors did. It was boring and it also did little to relieve me of having to answer questions about things that are already in the syllabus. It felt like I was participating in the cycle-of-abuse thing that academics do when they get a little shred of power. I had promised myself I’d never do that, yet here I am. Though I also inflict vocabulary and pop quizzes and assign reading logs and talk a lot about MLA format too, I try to limit the ways in which I relieve my own suffering by imposing it upon other people. So I’m not going to stage a performance of Milsom Reads Her Own Syllabus with Pauses and a Wagging Finger for Occasional Effect this year (which describes a lot of what I have experienced to be Pedagogical Approaches of Illustrious Academics).

I have been teaching for a decade now (💥🌈🥂), and on that basis I’m going to say that it’s a lost cause: I don’t think there is any way to avoid the fact that you are going to say things and then repeat them to students who will then ask you them again. “It’s in the syllabus” somehow doesn’t mean that anyone is going to know it by heart or even want to reference it. It’s relatable anyway. It’s like when I open the fridge and ask my mom where the mustard is even though I know if I spent more than .3 seconds looking for it, I’d find it on my own, and I also know she’s going to just yell at me to look for it yourself.  Maybe there is something Freudian going on in this after all? Maybe we just want to . . . interact?

Syllabus Scavenger Hunt

When I’m not feeling super overwhelmed at the beginning of a semester (which is hard when you’re in new jobs all the time and don’t really know what is expected and precarity and stress and so forth), I really like to create a “Syllabus Scavenger Hunt.” I did one this year because it’s the first time in a long time where I’m teaching in the same place for a second year in a row! (In case you missed it, this is a real, actual, literal privilege considering the dire state of the profession/the world/English departments.)

My Syllabus Scavenger Hunt is just a list of however many questions I can come up with about information that can be found by looking through the syllabus. It’s a real trick: give a fun name that evokes childhood to something that is really boring and tedious. But still pretend it is fun and reward students for doing it, which basically describes my pedagogy. This year’s Scavenger Hunt has a whopping 34 questions on it. These questions include such highlights as:

If you get a “D” in a course, will that course be transferable to a 4-year college?

and

Can you request an extension the day before something is due?

and

Why does Milsom require you to have a “Calendar” for her course?

Instead of forcing students to answer all 34 questions (yes, what a slog!), I’ll divide them up into groups of 3 or 4 and assign each group to 4-5 questions. After about 20 minutes or so, I’ll have each group present. This sort of low-stakes activity is so great because it forces the students to talk to each other (I always remind them to introduce themselves because if I don’t, they mightn’t), and then it enables me to observe the class dynamics right away: who opts to do the presentation? Who gets left out when the groups self-select? (I always immediately say “Oh you join these people” to make sure that awkward moment ends quickly.) Are there students who already know each other? Are there groups that have suddenly switched into speaking in Spanish? (I encourage that, though I have colleagues who police it–which seems weird to me. It’s cool to hear students explain things to each other in a different language and it also lets me see who needs what sort of assistance. Also I’m learning Spanish so it’s fulfilling on some sort of narcissistic level to hear my own writing translated for free.)

The fact that I will collect this handout and give a grade for doing it ensures that during these presentations, students appear to be scrambling to fill in the answers. This also means that they will interject and ask their classmates to repeat things. I love this set up because the class will usually start to own the progress through the handout. Even though the stakes are so low (this will account for literally .000000000008% of their grades), students will take it seriously. Also the questions are pretty provocative: why do my students need a New York Public Library card this semester? Why is it sometimes better to get an “F” than a “D” on your transcript at our school? 🤔

Also, I find that this Scavenger Hunt has been the best way for me to ensure that the students have been held accountable for reading the syllabus, and I find that it does not require me to read it aloud for them.

More Tips:

  • Make them write down what page each answer can be found on.
  • Make the whole group stand and come to the front of the room to present. This tells the students that they will have to get used to moving around in your class. Even the students who don’t plan to speak during the presentation will still feel like part of the group.
  • If the whole thing can’t be finished in one class period, it can be a homework assignment.
  • Include funny questions in the Scavenger Hunt.
  • Give everyone an “A” or 100% on the assignment as long as it is complete. Starting things off with a big win makes even the most vulnerable students feel positive about the class.

Things I do to prepare for the school year

I definitely think about syllabi appearances (at the expense of content, I’ll admit):

While researching the topic of accessibility and syllabi, I learned that the SIZE of the font is more important to the dyslexic reader than the absence of serifs (though serifs are problematic).

I also have been shoring up some memes and quotations to use in opening-day slides:

Libraries are Free
Libraries are Free
Saying "Here" during Attendance
Saying “Here” during Attendance

Here’s the website I found from the University of Michigan that offers learning support to people with dyslexia.

 

Here’s the article I found with information about “Good Fonts for Dyslexia.”