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The inspiring syllabus challenge

November 4, 2010
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I’ve been thinking a bit about the humble syllabus. In many ways, this is the dust jacket, or movie trailer of our course. Think about what makes a great dust jacket or trailer—one that makes you want to read the book or see the movie right away. A sense of mystery? Action? Questions?

What doesn’t make you want to read the book? How about a detailed table of contents describing everything you’ll read? Or an outline of the bad things that will happen to you if you don’t finish the book within a month?

Check out some of the many examples on the internet, and you’ll see that more apt metaphor for the syllabus is a legal contract. Most syllabi read draconian manuals outlining all the ways in which you’ll lose points for turning in work late, not getting an excused absence and more. Very few make any effort to capture students with the wonder of the subject they’ll be studying, and I can only guess this is because unlike a dust jacket, students have already “bought” the course by registering, and so the teacher doesn’t perceive the need to market the class to them.

I know that we’re more and more a legalistic society, but I’m not sure the answer is spelling out every single consequence of a late paper in the syllabus, and getting parents to sign it. Do parents really sit down with their kids and read all those syllabi they’re supposed to sign? I doubt it, and I personally, would much rather rely on the assumption that we’re all working toward a common goal of working toward understanding (which is also why I don’t have any late policy at all).

As a physics teacher, a course plagued with depressing syllabi, I find this depressing and sad. And this year, I tried to change things a bit by writing a short, inspiring syllabus. To appreciate this, you should see some of the whoppers I wrote previously.

Here’s one of my early efforts, about 8 years ago. Bland, bland, bland.

View this document on Scribd

Years later, I decided bigger was better. I can remember slaving over writing up a description of the class community guidelines. Sadly, I imagine I was probably one of the only people to read them.

View this document on Scribd

This year, I committed myself to a 1 page syllabus that communicated, more than anything, that this will be a course that is relevant to students, and will help them to change how they view the world. Here’s what I put together.

View this document on Scribd

All of this is a prelude to one of my next duties for my department which is editing the science section of the course catalog, filled with fairly bland prose that describes the content of most of our courses, but fails to capture much of what we really do in class. I can still remember being a high school senior and looking, with a sense of wonder, through a course catalog for a college to which I was applying. My goal, which I doubt I will achieve, is help transform our course descriptions that will inspire that same feeling in the high school students who read it.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 4, 2010 10:55 pm

    My syllabi definitely need work.

    I went through the revamping of our science course descriptions at my old school. Is it connected to a self study?

    • November 4, 2010 11:14 pm

      No, it’s something we do every year—look at the descriptions, decide it’s not really worth editing them, and then reprinting them. This time, the task of organizing this was handed to me. Not sure we’ll do anything radically different, but we will use google docs!

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