Breaking Things: The Syllabus

This semester, my goal is to break things. As much as possible, really. I’m trying to see what makes the first-year writing courses at my institution break, how far they bend before they do, and what gives way first. I’m also trying to see whether critical pedagogy can be applied to the framework of these courses as I myself try to learn about critical pedagogy, both in practice (through my classes) and in theory (through my work with Hybrid Pedagogy).

On the first day of class, I set out to break the syllabus.

Typical first day: Students walk in, sit down, are handed syllabus, are read the syllabus, depart.
My first day: Students received email prior to arrival, asking them to think of what they want to see in a syllabus. Students walk in, sit down, are asked to visit a Google Doc with lots of whitespace, are asked to list the things they want to see in a syllabus as the professor writes what he hears, are asked to weigh in on several parts and provide content for what remains.

We ran out of time, we had great discussions, much laughter was heard, and a couple jaws had to be picked up off the floor. Success…so far.

I wanted to learn what my students think are the most important parts of a syllabus. Last semester, I asked students to make a syllabus quiz based on the syllabus I had prepared and presented them. These quizzes showed me not what students thought was important, but what students thought I would think important…and that prioritizing information was not a natural instinct, especially with this particular document. Student-created quizzes emphasized specifics (like how often they should check their email) rather than principles (like which contact method is their best hope of reaching me). Their quizzes also used information almost exclusively from the first two pages of the syllabus, leaving the other eight or so relatively untouched. This was mostly due to available time in the class session, but there was also a bit of attention drift going on, as well: Students basically gave up after creating a few questions.

Last semester’s experiment with the syllabus was to break the student response to it—break the traditional syllabus quiz—but it left the syllabus itself completely untouched. Last semester’s experiment with the syllabus failed. Students didn’t pay any more attention to the critical parts of the syllabus, and my effort at getting them familiar with it meant only that they took a myopic approach to the most readily accessible material and completed the task without processing much. Three students this week, who have me for another semester, even said in our conversation about the contents of a syllabus, “But you didn’t have an attendance policy last semester.” I did. It was section 6.1, and it was about two paragraphs long. They didn’t know that because there was no value placed on it.

By contrast, this semester, they are creating the value that each section of the syllabus will have. By defining what goes in the document, they are shaping a document that they will value. For the record, I thought grades would be of primary, if not exclusive, importance. My first class astonished me by not mentioning grades until after eight or so other things made the list. With most other classes, grades were in the first two things mentioned. Grades for these students seem to serve one of two purposes. The one they hope for is reassurance. By getting grades on every. single. thing. they. submit., they can see that they are doing what’s expected and targeting their coveted A. But the other purpose of grades, the one they want to avoid, is accountability. If a grade reflects poorly on their work, it becomes a thing to challenge or complain about. If it’s a badge of completion, they support it. Students showed that they valued—or at least that they feel comfortable with—the framework of grades within a syllabus, setting the terms under which they engage the course.

So what do they want graded? Here again, answers took two tracks: The expected and the honest. Those who reported what they’re accustomed to said they wanted tests, quizzes, homework, exams, and projects graded. Those who were honest identified participation, effort, or “nothing” as their goals. Exams were particularly funny. Students volunteered the idea very readily. I looked at them and asked what their exam in a writing class would be like. Answers were shoddy and uncertain, usually including multiple-choice suggestions or generic essays. But when I asked, “So who likes/wants exams,” the response was even more predictable: silence. We agreed that we hate them, so we skipped them. I should have engaged them in discussion of what purpose exams serve, but the idea that a class about writing might not lend itself to an exam format was easily accepted.

Before I get to the two points every class wanted to see in the syllabus, I need to explain what I had told them about my plan for the course. I said that I have two main goals for the semester of Academic Writing II, highlighting two significant components of writing done in the academic world: 1) Academics routinely invoke the work of others. I want my students to become comfortable incorporating the ideas of other authors in their own writing. 2) Academics want their work to be shared and/or public. I want my students to think about their work engaging with a public audience. With those two goals in mind, I explained how the course would be structured and how our goal would be to submit three pieces for online publication over the course of the semester. To be clear: I want the writing they do to be for an audience outside the classroom.

Now back to the syllabus. After eliminating things they didn’t actually want (like homework and exams and cell phone use policies and such), what we ended up with, in each of my classes, were attendance and grading. They wanted me to tell them what I expected from their attendance, and they wanted me to tell them how I would measure their performance. We talked about what should be graded, and with fairly little discussion, we reached the conclusion that grading their writing wouldn’t work. They’re writing for a public audience that likely won’t include me. I’m not qualified to judge them. The editors of the venues they want to publish in sure can judge them. But not me (unless, as I explained to them, they want to submit something to my journal). So I’m not a qualified assessor, and their peers aren’t, either. We gave up on grading writing. We’d give feedback on it, and we’d work to improve it, but we wouldn’t grade it. What can we grade? Participation.

Once we honed in on that specific, I was able to make it approachable fairly simply. They have each worked in groups before. They have each had the experience of a student who slacks off and doesn’t pull their own weight. They know when someone doesn’t put in the effort. They’ve also watched as someone else in their group becomes a superhuman overachiever and puts it way more work than anyone else. They know when to reward one another. Suddenly, they have evaluation standards, they have experience with the situation and the measures, and they’ve been identified as the experts whose opinions we value. Perfect.

One student was vocally hesitant. He was basically afraid of being screwed by a vendetta. Our conversation led to me saying I’d look at the feedback and question the reviewers if things seemed off; additionally, any time I’ve done group feedback, the whole group presents an accurate measure even if one person unfairly hates or adores another. It works when they take it seriously.

Then the question of attendance policies. “After three absences, you lose points” was the standard initial statement. Several groups thought that sufficient as the complete policy, too. The questions I posed then were fun. “How many points?” “Points off of what? I thought we weren’t grading things.” “Three excused or unexcused absences? How many excused are okay? What if you play a sport? Can those be in addition?”

Alluvasudden my students thought of a sickly sports player who missed three classes for games, three classes (with doctor’s note!) for the flu, and then another three classes just because. You know, the three unexcused absences they were allowing. I also asked who wanted to record all the attendance information. The tedium and futility of a three-strikes policy, plus its incompatibility with a grade-free working environment, became clear.

Students worked to craft policies, with only two classes actually making significant headway. We’re finding, though, that policies here are less appropriate than principles. Students end up talking in terms of “be responsible” or “act like an adult.” I also heard a suggestion to notify peers before absences. The conversation went from punitive acts done by others to the transgressor and moved into motivations and intentions of the respectful and productive student. The focus was different, and they were far more thoughtful about the issue.

I’m hopeful that we’ll end up with an encouraging, supportive set of principles to shape the way our course runs. Day one was good.