It’s not about the syllabus…
I had a number of interesting conversations today, both online and offline about my post, Too Much time on their hands…, which gave a shout out to history professor Tona Hangen, who redesigned her syllabus to present a far more compelling vision of a history course, both in terms of the visual design of the document, but also more importantly in terms of the structural changes she implemented as a result of the rethinking of the course this syllabus redesign inspired.
I was lucky enough for Tona herself to find this post and offer her own feedback to my post:
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.
Here I think Tona is making the point I was trying to make all along—it was never about the syllabus. Even though I’ve issued the inspiring syllabus challenge, I’m not really all that interested in getting teachers to prettify their syllabi for students. I am interested in doing the kind of work Tona did to pull up all the floorboards of my course, and think about rebuilding it from the very foundation to better achieve my goals for student learning. This is the sort of experience I’d wish for every teacher.
I think it is often true that this level of work usually results in a tangible product. Sometimes it’s a syllabus, sometimes its a lesson plan, sometimes it’s a bunch of videos for a flipped classroom approach, sometimes it’s a blog and sometimes it’s just a pretty bulletin board. And of course, not every redesigned syllabus or flipped video is useful, and often a redesigned bulletin board has no effect on student learning. Were I the teacher doing these things, I invite and would crave thoughtful criticism and questions from colleagues to help me think about how this product really is bringing me closer to my goals of increasing student learning, and that’s exactly the awesome push back I get on this blog all the time.
But what I think isn’t helpful simply looking at one of these products, especially one that ranks pretty high on the awesome scale like Tona’s syllabus, and simply dismiss it as that person “having too much time on his/her hands.” No one would say this of Jerry Rice’s workouts, or Chopin’s etudes, or a surgeon who makes sure that every instrument is laid out in perfect order on the operating table. Why do these professions get the benefit of the doubt, and so often educators’ deep investments of time get dismissed? I think it is a symptom (or perhaps a small cause) of educators’ struggle to be seen as a true profession.
This is part of a larger attitude that I dislike—one that says “I’m to busy to do X because I’ve got a family/teach X hundred students/have a parakeet farm” when subtext really is, “I have a life, my priorities are more important than yours, and you do X because you’ve got too much time on your hands.” Each of us is trying to find balance in our lives, and each of us is making personal choices about how we set priorities. We really can’t tell what another person’s priorities are based on a quick judgment by one product, and it isn’t our place to judge those priorities in the first place.
And yes, I’m probably being a bit defensive, because I’ve written a blog that now has 372 posts in a little over a year, and I’ve probably heard one too many comments about people who say “they don’t have time to blog because they have a family.” That’s fine. I don’t have time to watch Monday Night Football because I have a blog.
End of rant.