Plug-In Syllabus

This semester I tried something new in both of my classes: I front-loaded the syllabi with lots of historical and theoretical frameworks, methodology discussions, and examples and applications, and left the last half of the syllabus open. Well, not completely open: in one case I created a list of thematic and topical “plug-ins” that students could choose from based on their needs and interests, and in the other case I linked to an online bibliography and promoted occasional in-class discussions throughout the previous weeks about how we’d need to shape the latter half of the syllabus to advance our work. As I’ve noted here several times, both classes were new to me and the students, and both were hybrid theory-practice courses leading up to the creation of a collective theoretically-informed project (in one case, an online exhibition; in the other, a map). I had to accept along ago — and in the early weeks of the semester, tried to help the students accept — that the outcomes of both classes would be emergent, and that the workflow for both would evolve as we went along.

So, last week I encouraged both classes to think about what they thought they needed to know, but didn’t, in order to achieve the goals they set for themselves for their individual and class-wide final projects. This forward-thinking was possible, I’d like to think, in part because the students were asked to submit tentative final project proposals the preceding week. Although I certainly didn’t expect them to have a clear vision of their Week 15 productions in Week 5, the push to identify potential topical interests, theoretical frameworks, research methodologies, and raw material (the “stuff” out of which they’d be making their exhibitions and maps) helped them generate a hazy vision on the horizon — a goal they could work towards, and in which they were already, I hope, invested.

This practice of asking students to define their own problems and set their own goals — and then helping them figure out what they need to learn to achieve that goal — was inspired in part by some project-based classes I taught in the past, and especially by my work on our Provost’s Office’s Applied Think Tank this summer. We talked in the ATT at length about “experimental colleges” in which students could gather to tackle pressing social or environmental problems, or to address emerging cultural concerns, by taking advantage of a flexible schedule and a committed, interdisciplinary faculty team, who would draw in experts from other fields when needed. In order for a program like this to serve students well, several of us agreed, you’d have to clue students into the logic behind the curriculum design process: you’d have to demystify the creation of sequences of courses, degree requirements, syllabi, etc. If students knew how “units” of instruction, how skills and knowledges, built upon each other in the pursuit of a goal — be it a degree, a group project, a solution to a problem, the exploration of a field — they might learn how to conceptualize and create the building blocks of their own learning. If you bring students into the curriculum and syllabus design process, they learn not simply how to follow a given schedule and meet course requirements — which, of course, are important things to know how to do — but also how to set goals, how to determine which goals are worthwhile, how to determine the steps one needs to take in reaching those goals, how to sequence those steps, and how to evaluate one’s work and assess one’s progress along the way. I figured graduate students in particular would be prepared for — and perhaps excited about — the work of constructing their own collaborative learning experiences.

Between last week and this week, both classes explored the breadth of their classmates’ interests: in one class, students posted their project ideas to our class website and shared their ideas in class; and in the other class, students briefly presented their proposals in class and noted their “things and theories of interest” on the blackboard. Then this week I posted the schedule for the remaining weeks, including set deadlines and already-planned-for events we’d have to work around, and offered a list of activities through which they might structure their learning, and topics they might want to explore, for the rest of the semester. I suggested, for instance, that they might want to organize discussions around themes that tie together several students’ interests: in my Media & Materiality class, for instance, several students have expressed interest in sound, and several others share interests in forms of written texts. I offered some other suggestions:

  • Pecha Kucha: short, timed presentations in which students are forced to crystallize their project ideas and identify at least 20 media artifacts — images, sounds, video clips — the “raw material” for their final projects.
  • Tech labs: hands-on lessons (with guest instructors) to aid with the conceptualization of technical forms and selection of platforms that will support their intellectual goals and their projects’ content; assistance with implementation of those plans
  • Guest presenters or critics: are there people whose expertise, or critical feedback, could benefit us?
  • Exercises to explore possible group formations and collaborations: how to find connections between students’ projects, how to “congeal” into exhibition groups or mapping clusters
  • Group work: rotating groups based on shared or complementary topical interests, design strategies, and areas of technical expertise could aid one another and serve as “consultants” for others’ projects
  • Student-led mini-lessons pertaining to their individual interests
  • Individual student conferences: would allow students with highly individualized needs — students in Urban Media Archaeology, for instance, are using a wide variety of primary resources from an array of institutions, each of which has different access and use policies — to receive specific advice

Students arranged themselves into small groups and discussed, for 15 minutes, what and how they’d “plug in” to the latter half of the semester syllabus. They considered what they knew at this point in the semester, what they’d need to know in order to successfully complete their final projects, how to compartmentalize that development into individual two-hour classes and assignments, and how to sequence those meetings and activities. I was impressed by their understanding of “pedagogical logic” and scheduling, their comprehension of the challenges they were faced with and what tools and skills they’d need to acquire to overcome those challenges, and their creative approach to problem-solving. They generated lots of smart, inventive, practical ideas that never would’ve occurred to me. We noted everyone’s suggestions on the blackboard, and I posted photos of our blackboard brainstorms to the class websites. I’m now working with my TA’s, Rory and Maria, to distill the students’ recommendations into a revised second-half-of-the-semester schedule. We’ll see how it turns out.

I’ve learned that responsive, ad hoc, in-the-moment syllabus modification is hard work. I’m known for (maybe even notorious for) my long, thorough syllabi, which, when I distribute them on the first day of class, typically have full descriptions of every assignment, complete bibliographic references for every assigned text, meet-up details for every field trip, etc. This type of syllabus creation — the one with which I’m most familiar — requires a tremendous amount of preparatory work before the semester begins, but it allows for a bit of a release during the semester. I always know what’s coming next. But for my two current classes, fait accompli syllabi simply wouldn’t have worked; in fact, they would’ve been irresponsible. In both classes, as we design our learning processes as we go along, I have no choice but to design a syllabus that both follows and leads that learning process. I’m not sure if the strategies I’ve chosen are the most effective means of involving students in this process, but I’m glad I gave it a shot. I think the potential benefits — a sense of ownership over one’s learning process, comprehension of the stages and sequences of learning, appreciation for the logistics and administrative concerns of course design — are worth the risks.

I’d love to hear from others who’ve designed processes through which students contribute to syllabus development — especially as a class unfolds. How do you balance structure and flexibility, the desire to establish clear expectations and the desire to allow students to shape those expectations for themselves?

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