Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Syllabus as a Work of Art: Juggling Act

“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important.” - Bertrand Russell

Shuffled in amidst the normal, everyday tasks comes news that the summer session courses I teach will be modified for 2010, and eight months in advance it's time to dust off the paperwork and assume the position. One relatively small change can have major repercussions that ripple out the entire structure of the course. Shortening the six-week session to a five-week by adding on an additional Friday class (as opposed to the regular Monday through Thursday run) might technically seem innocuous and only call for shifting the class schedule around, but in reality there is a domino effect, or maybe snakes & ladders is a better metaphor. I suspect I might be pole-vaulting over mouse turds again, but what's required is to reassess every little detail in it's relationship with the big picture. An instructor has to maintain a dual perspective that views the class both in it's entirety in addition to keeping in mind separate assignments and how they will have a cumulative effect in reaching the syllabus' stated objectives.
This is something like a composer pacing movements withing a symphony, and also acting in the capacity as a conductor - the creative aspect of a vision has to be effectively managed with the practicality of day-to-day classroom considerations. This is analogous to creating a symphony (as ideally, structuring a studio course is in itself a work of art) without any knowledge yet of the participants individual capabilities, who are in turn also doubling as both the intended audience as well as being performers.

In the grand scheme of things the classroom version is rarely as harmonious as envisioned on paper, and so this bout of preparatory planning each and every new semester involves taking into account the previous class' experience and tries to realign the reality with the concept. As hard as I try to lock in everything in advance with the new schedule of assigned work, in-class exercises, critiques and roster of accompanying activities, my print-out of scheduled topics always winds up looking like one of those play-by-play football game schematic diagrams with circles and arrows. So much for the whole control-freak thing: it's crucial to allow for built-in flexibility so as to accommodate the unexpected and shift things around on the fly. This stands in contrast with many instructors who essentially "phone it in" and after establishing a set pattern never deviate or change from the same boring-ass routine, semester after semester, year in, year out. Sometimes relatively inexperienced teachers will just simply inherit, adopt or slightly modify a syllabus that's on-file in the department office or on-line, and basically go through the motions as well, which more often than not is a real crap-shoot.

Now somebody in some cubicle somewhere in Administration will in turn pass judgement on the academic legitimacy of the proposed coursework. I can't help but always be amused at the objective quantification of the creative and learning process when it comes time to convert and reduce everything down to a system of points + letter grades for ease of scoring. It almost makes the actual artwork irrelevant by removing any possible aesthetic interpretation: no such thing ashaving a piece "feel" like an "A."
Having a bit of an distance on the class allows for yet another opportunity at merging the concept with the reality by taking into account what worked, and what didn't, what was popular, or hated, and the inevitable attempt at covering even more material and incorporating different approaches. It basically boils down to the fact that I damn well better be ready to show that I learned something after every class.
"A college is a place where pebbles are polished and diamonds dimmed." - Robert Ingersoll

1 comment:

  1. Haha! Snakes and ladders is the perfect analogy for syllabus fine-tuning.

    This is a great post, and mirrors a lot of my own concerns about drafting syllabi. And it's especially frustrating when fellow teachers just rehash the same old stuff :-/