It seems every two or three years, Jesse Stommel texts me to say, “You’re going to hate me, but I have an idea.” This text always arrives mid- to late-November, and he always notes how he’s batting his eyelashes and tells me he really likes me as a colleague. In short, he’s buttering me up because he know’s I’m not going to like what he has to say. What he has to say usually amounts to, “Let’s do complete revision of the Hybrid Pedagogy website and get it all done in December.”
My first instinct is to strangle him.
December promises a break from grading, from emails, from meetings, and from deadlines. It’s a chance to just stop for a bit to catch my breath and clear my head before January arrives with its own set of demands and projects. Why can’t we leave December be? I used to like December.
The plan typically involves a freshening-up of the journal. We add a renewed and re-energized call for submissions, an updated and modernized aesthetic, and perhaps some tweaks to the display or functionality of information on the site. If we want a new bell or whistle, it rolls out in December. Highlight a trend from the preceding year? We draw attention to it in December. Something big coming in the next year? We hint at it in December. That one month provides a turning point not just for calendars but for perspectives.
When Jesse reaches out just before December, I know I’ll spend that month tweaking CSS, patching themes, and checking layouts. I buckle up because it’ll be a whirlwind of a month.
Benefit of Revision
I’ve since realized the benefit of those harebrained, mad rushes to redo everything in a crunch: They force perspective. It’s the same thing we teach students when we ask them to revise their papers. We ask them to take another look at the material, to reconsider their perspective.
Just as it applies to writing, revision benefits websites, courses, and syllabi. In April 2020, I revised my personal website, re-viewing my career through the lens of job hunting, rather than portfolio-presenting. The Hybrid Pedagogy website gets snappier and fresher with each update. Courses we teach benefit from updated content and modern perspectives when we re-think our approaches. Even our syllabi — those venerable documents which lay down immutable law — could use some sprucing up and rethinking.
Let’s take a look at how revision helps in each of these situations.
In early 2020 I helped roll out the third complete Hybrid Pedagogy redesign in ten years. We changed the publication platform, migrating and updating the content in the process. A month or two prior, we changed hosting providers. Those significant changes provided opportunities to rethink how we do things. It required us to check almost every aspect of our setup. We made a number of changes to improve the functionality and organization of the site. We only thought about those options because we had to start from scratch with a new hosting provider and a new publishing platform. Starting fresh made us better.
The website you’re currently using launched around the same time as the Hybrid Pedagogy redesign. Again, I had to rethink everything I had on my old site. Using a new theme and a new approach to the site meant all content had to be reviewed. In the process, I also chose to return to this blog, which I had abandoned since 2017. Many of my blog posts — some dating back to 2011 — needed updating to fit modern post structures. I removed several irrelevant or broken posts, a good spring cleaning nearly a decade overdue.
Simply tracking down the images I used provided a lesson in digital archiving and the impermanence of the web. Back when I began blogging, images played a much smaller role in blog designs than they do now. Most of the images I used are tiny and low-resolution by today’s standards. This refresh helped me improve the look of my blog and catch a couple issues with image licensing.
The current covid-19 pandemic has everyone making the “pivot” to online education. For many of us (students and teachers alike), that transition happened too soon and too suddenly. Many teachers asked how they could “move” their classes online with only a week or two to find an answer.
But that’s the wrong question to ask. We should be asking what education looks like and can be when physical proximity no longer constrains our efforts. How do we remain connected with students in a time when connection can be deadly? How do we express care for students without being beside them?
As Sean Michael Morris puts it, “for students, the disorientation will be profound.” He says that students in the worst circumstances “will find that their instructors are overwhelmed by the demands of the digital, the expectations of nonetheless meeting at designated class times, and who have been in the past completely unwilling to entertain digital learning, much less distance learning.” But by re-thinking the opportunities digital presents and the real-world application of our courses, the change to online instruction brings fresh perspectives and expectations to the intentionality of our courses.
If we move, as so many institutions have moved, toward a model of schooling that treats a course as little more than a responsive book, we will have missed the point. We will have failed. Our move should instead be toward the same values we had before the outbreak. We should focus on sharing experience, building community, showing compassion, and nurturing curiosity. These things must continue to exist in online education and in a world locked down by pandemic. But those values look different online. By revising our courses, not just “moving” them online, we stay true to our values and ensure meaningful student growth.
Start Simple: Revise Your Syllabus
When’s the last time you re-evaluated the content of your course syllabi? When’s the last time you re-read the policies or student expectations mandated by your institution? What changes — in your discipline, in modern life, in social norms — influence your perspective on the material and course? How are those changes reflected in your syllabus?
At my current institution, we use a “syllabus addendum” for the boilerplate required syllabus text. This addendum includes things like our ADA policy, our Academic Integrity policy, and information about library resources. Instructors need only add one line to a syllabus referencing the addendum, and they can avoid reading the policies.
I’ll let you speculate how recently students (or faculty, for that matter) have read that addendum. Further, consider how important we say that information or those policies must appear. We reference them as an afterthought at the end of the most tedious-yet-ubiquitous text in an undergraduate’s experience.
Think how much more lively, more vital, a syllabus would be if it were refreshed every semester.
My Commitment to Revision
For my part, I have students write our policies in each class. They determine grading policies, technology-use policies, and bringing-food-to-class policies. Student-authored policies tailor the course to their needs and shows that our syllabus is a living, important document. They know because they helped create it.
I normally teach FYC courses, which tend to be standardized at the institutional level. Over the past six years, I’ve re-designed my school’s FYC curriculum five times (long story). With each revision, I value the improvements and responsiveness of what we build. Going forward, I intend to fully revise at least one course’s syllabus every semester. This holds particularly for those courses where recycling last year’s material seems the tempting, easy way out.
And what about this redesigned website of mine? It got me to step back and re-think how I present myself professionally. It had been years since I did that. Who knows … maybe next December I’ll text Jesse and ask his help in re-re-desiging this site, just for payback.