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Too much time on their hands…

August 29, 2011

A few days ago, I sent out a link to this incredible syllabus to a fellow colleague. Do take a moment to check out the syllabus. Not only is it visually striking, it presents a very impressive narrative of the the course and what it means to study history—the second page, which describes wading, snorkeling and suba diving into history is a wonderful metaphor.

Here is the response I got back from my colleague:

Thanks, John, I look forward to looking this over and mining it for ideas.
On first glance, I see a teacher with way too much time on his hands.

I must admit, I found the “too much time on his hands” comment enraging (not to mention that the syllabus was created by a her). Were I choosing professors to teach my hypothetical history department, this syllabus is about all I’d to convince me to go to great lengths to recruit this professor to my department. Once I read her blog post about how she transformed this document into the above syllabus:
I think I would dispatch my hypothetical jet to fly out and pick this professor up to wine and dine her and do everything I possibly could to recruit her to my department.

This person loves teaching. She’s not afraid to admit it, blog about it, and her passion for teaching goes well beyond her lectures in the classroom; she’s working on the total package, and realizes that even a document as common a syllabus sends a powerful message to students. She’s willing to learn new skills of design in order to craft a syllabus that does more than simply bore a student to tears and make him or her dread the next 18 weeks of class.

And I dare say that professor achieved a greater level of fame than any of her critics. I learned of this syllabus from a post on ProfHacker, a blog by the Chronicle of Higher Ed Blog that has 1550 RSS readers alone.

Why is it that expressions like this, or Dan Meyer’s awesome ADE video below where he admits to spending 18 hours editing a single lesson for his class, draw such criticism from people who think it pointless to spend 18 hours on a single lesson?

I think it again speaks to the need of the education profession to remember that it is a profession, and you get better in a profession with hard work and devotion. No one would tell Jerry Rice he had “too much time on his hands” after watching his unbelieveable training routine, and Chopin’s Eutdes, written and manically practiced by the pianist to perfect particular technical skills are never described as “wastes of time.”

Why can’t a teacher perfect his or her craft with this same level of daily devotion, without derision or judgment? Until we can answer that question, I’m not sure that many of the problems in education will find solutions.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. August 29, 2011 2:27 am

    A bit of this is devil’s advocate and a bit of this is why I’ve left my stale syllabus alone for years…

    I disagree that improving a syllabus is considered “perfecting his or her craft”. Not that there isn’t value in improving a syllabus, but I think it’s a matter of opinion and personal priority what a teacher’s focus should be. I don’t spend any time on my syllabus (which for me, is just an introduction to the class, sans rules, procedures, grading policy, etc., which is all introduced when needed) because my students don’t spend much time reading directions, papers, etc., and whatever goes on this piece of paper is worth the 3-5 minutes they spend glancing at it.

    Yes, one can argue “but that’d be different if you gave them one of *these* syllabi! ::unveil super syllabus::”. However, in my class, the purpose of a syllabus, even the most fantastic, serves only so much. There’s no point in me telling my students how cool I think my class will be or try to tantalize them with what they may be learning. That stuff happens when it happens.

    To me, spending a lot of time on a syllabus is like spending a lot of time on a business card if I’m trying to sell a service. The best way to sell my service is to learn the market, test my service, provide awesome service and solve people’s problems. At the end of the day, the business card is just a detail. As long as I can give my contact information when my client needs it.

    Perhaps some students can savor the syllabus. I just don’t care whether they do. Although I see where the opinion of creating that syllabus is “a waste of time”, I wouldn’t have said it. 😛 What I see as a waste of my time can be very helpful to you and your students.

  2. Chris Goedde permalink
    August 29, 2011 10:45 am

    This brings to mind something my AP U.S. History teacher said to me over thirty years ago when I was complaining about losing points for some reason I considered trivial: “Presentation matters.” I haven’t ever forgotten those two words. What we put in a syllabus, including formatting, sends a message to students, sometimes whether they (or we) are conscious of it or not.

  3. August 29, 2011 11:05 am

    Like Frank I rarely spend any time on a syllabus. Last year I didn’t even pass one out.

    Having just read Tona’s blog post I am most struck by the fact that this new “flashy” syllabus represents not just a better designed product, but a totally new process that she has developed for teaching history at her university.

    I like stories like this one that demonstrate that doing a small task–redesigning your syllabus–can be a useful way to focus your thinking on the big questions of your practice, and can help you refine and hone your own viewpoint on what it means to teach _____ well. So, it’s not that Tona had too much time on her hands and decided to craft a sexy looking syllabus that just repeated all of the information in her old one, but now *with pictures!* On the contrary, all of the time she spent creating this (admittedly beautiful) syllabus was time she also spent reflecting on how she will teach history differently in the upcoming school year. A task completely worthy of the time she spent on it.

    • August 29, 2011 11:34 am

      I agree completely. The blog post is terrific, and I’m sorry if my original intent wasn’t clear—this isn’t about the syllabus. If a teacher chooses to make a syllabus pretty—fine. If not, I don’t care. It’s about how when teachers invest the time to really question their practice and improve, too often outsiders look at the end product (a lesson, a syllabus, or a blog) and simply say “They had too much time on their hands.”

  4. August 29, 2011 12:30 pm

    Thanks so much to everyone for kind & thoughtful comments. Time invested in course development (and in my defense, it didn’t take excessive time to create this redesign) is not wasted time. Neither is time invested in thinking about whether changing my approach can help students learn better.

    I’d also have to give a shout-out to my colleagues in our university’s small but stellar Center for Teaching and Learning. Though I did this “on my own,” I had good resources at hand and a lot of meta-conversation about teaching under my belt. Our institution = 4/4 load and in trying to turn being a “teaching institution” from a pejorative dismissal to a solid, student-centered reality… small steps will help get us there.

    I’ll be looking for your jet. Just kidding.

  5. September 2, 2011 9:56 am

    This is a very interesting idea. I do think that creating a well-developed syllabus does indicate that the teacher has probably thought through her plan for the year; however, it a dry syllabus does not mean that the teacher is boring. I will say that my syllabus this was incredibly vague and did not give very much indication about what we would be doing in the class other than a light description. Having pictures would certainly make students more interest and give parents a clearer idea of what we are doing. I have not printed a syllabus in a few semesters, so adding a little more color and flavor would be easy and something that I never thought to do. Thanks!

    • September 2, 2011 10:03 am

      Thanks Dana,
      I never intended to imply that a boring or dry syllabus connotes a boring or dry class. In my inspiring syllabus challenge, I do compare the syllabus to a sort of “sales brochure” for a course, and lament that viewed in this light, they aren’t very enticing, and too often are designed as air tight legal documents rather than trying to show students the excitement and learning that awaits them in a particular course.

      • September 3, 2011 11:46 am

        At our university, the syllabus is a legal document. You can’t enforce cheating rules unless they are in the syllabus. There is supposed to be a statement about how disable students get services in each syllabus also.

        Having served on the Academic Senate grievance committee (the last step in a long chain for student complaints about grades), I can say that the content of the syllabus does matter, and a sloppy job can hurt the faculty (as well as the students). The appearance of the syllabus is of much less importance.

  6. September 3, 2011 11:19 am

    My first reaction to the syllabus was also that too much time was spent on making the document pretty—it looks like one of those horrible textbooks that is full of distractions rather than content or like a drug ad in a mass-market magazine (does it have a page of fine print on the back, like those do?).

    The problem with the syllabus is that the flashy presentation detracts from the content, rather than enhancing. The first impression is that this was done by a graphics designer who cares more for how things look than in actually having people read the text (white-on-grey is an instant signal that the text is not intended to be read).

    I generally spend a long time on the syllabus for each course—not in crafting some beautiful document (though I could do that, having taught digital typesetting in the past), but in revising the schedule, adding new material and trimming old material to make room.

    I sometimes spend 20–60 hours designing and testing a new programming assignment (which I might then use for 4 or 5 years), but most of my teaching time is spent on interacting with students, through classes, through one-on-one meetings, and through feedback on their writing, rather than on advertising for my classes.

  7. November 29, 2011 11:36 pm

    David Forster Wallace gets it. His syllabus might not be aesthetically beautiful, but it is carefully crafted and deeply thoughtful.

    From the Slate Article:

    Most of us operate on what Wallace elsewhere calls the “default setting;” we make a calculation about what is the right expenditure of energy for a syllabus; we make a sensible adult decision about preserving analytic brio for other things, and don’t think too much about it; we use the conventions, the years of worn-out tradition, as a shortcut to speed up communication. We assume we can just say “no late papers” or “class participation is 50% of the grade,” and everyone will know what we are talking about.

    And for a sane person: why comment? Why try to take on and disentangle the unspoken tensions that may or may not take place in a classroom some months in the future? Why not, in other words, let sleeping dogs lie, exhausted students lean on their hands after a weekend of parties?

    Is there something morally pure or preferable about David Foster Wallace’s painful intricate construction of a syllabus to the brisk, functional way most people toss off the task? I don’t know the answer to that. But there is a beauty in the documents, a seriousness that one can’t fail to be touched by.


  1. It’s not about the syllabus… « Quantum Progress

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