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It’s not about the syllabus…

August 30, 2011

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.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 2, 2011 3:18 am

    I’m not sure I understand your rant. Are you upset that the judgment made was a snap judgment? Or are you upset about the actual judgment, treating it as it were a fully informed one?

    I wouldn’t go so far to think this judgment was fully informed, as the person making it was unlikely to be as informed as you were about its context. If it was presented as “hey check out this syllabus”, the observer would naturally look at the end product and judge it for what it appears to be…. an elaborate syllabus. It’s unlikely for the observer to think about what you believed to be the *true* product and say “wow, I wonder what insights about this teacher’s curriculum were made through the process of creating this syllabus”. Thus, I think a snap judgment of “elaborate syllabus… not how I would spend my time” is understandable (and debatable). The purpose of my words is not to defend the person who passed judgment, but perhaps if you found their actions to be more understandable, it would restore a bit of your faith in humanity. 😛 If you explained the deeper context of the syllabus (like you did here), do you think that person would come to the same conclusion that they did, knowing what you know?

    Also, was this interaction representative of several interactions you’ve had in the past that held the attitude you mentioned? Or do all these feelings stem from this single interaction? If it’s the former, then I’ll stop using this one interaction as an example and you can disregard the previous paragraph heh.

    (And for the record, now knowing more of the context, I definitely agree that a process — in this case redoing a syllabus — that makes you reflect on your class and revamp things is well worth the time, however much you spent.)

    • September 2, 2011 10:42 am

      Great questions. My general rantiness draws from how educators tend to make snap judgments of end products of teacher work, like a blog or syllabus, and call things they don’t particularly like “too much time on their hands.” I’ve certainly done this, and I’m trying to change this, and that comment really doesn’t help the conversation of improving education, or even the practice of the particular teacher. Also, when I look deeper into the process that created the end product like a syllabus, or a Dan Meyer video, I’m often amazed by the level of thought that went into making that particular product.

      Really, this is just one incident with a faculty member i consider to be a friend, who is often very enthusiastic about this, but this comes on the back of lots of other comments I’ve heard from other teachers, both at my school and beyond, griping about teachers with blogs, or extensive flip class portfolios, as having “too much time on their hands”, so this comment send me over the edge.

      So as I try to explain in the next post, this isn’t really one interaction, but more a feeling I’ve picked up on from many interactions with faculty who seem to prefer to make snap judgments about others’ work rather than deeply engage it.

      • September 3, 2011 12:22 pm

        I see. I don’t remember hearing this attitude from others (so far, fortunately), but I can definitely see how it can be upsetting. So perhaps as an audience, it would be productive if instead of producing knee-jerk reactions of judgment, approach the situation with an attitude of curiosity? As it applies to your syllabus example, if the observer finds he doesn’t share the same sentiments as you about the syllabus, he can question what you see in the product, and may have found out more about the realizations the author came to during the process.

        On a note about the blog post and community reaction, it made me wonder… just like how there was a miscommunication/misinterpretation between you and your readers about the true point of that post, how often is there that similar miscommunication between us and our students about the true point of an activity/demo/assignment? Probably more often than I’d like. 😛

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