The Syllabus Dance
Remember when our summer dance card was open? You know, when we felt the endless summer ahead of us, ready to be savored like a slow waltz?
Suddenly, for me, it has turned into a frantic tarantella, music in triple time. I have to finish my three syllabi for the fall semester soon because of a late summer conference and a trip to Iowa to move my youngest into the dorm.
Even without the impending travel, I have received three emails about our department’s fall syllabi. My institution has a syllabus checklist of 29 items that must be on our syllabi. Twenty-nine. The dean’s office checks every syllabus to make sure of compliance. The composition director also sent a reminder that the template for first year composition has changed, and our assessment director warned us that we may need to add student learning outcomes to every syllabus.
Certainly these steps are important for the dance of the syllabus, and I would naturally include some of them, but they do speak to a larger issue when creating a syllabus – What moves should a syllabus make?
If the answer is for the larger production, perhaps what we could term “institutional ball,” then listing every single policy as a means of protecting the university makes sense. In my role as assistant chair, I have settled disputes between students and faculty regarding issues like excused university absences and required portfolio elements for teacher education. In both cases, the course syllabi were used as a means of decision. So, yes, these syllabi are the boxed-in foxtrot of institutional control.
But I wish my syllabi to set a different tempo, create an invitation to the class dancefloor. Recently, I added the following to one of my course syllabi:
Welcome to Women in Literature, a course that focuses on women’s writing from local and global perspectives. One of the goals of this class is to avoid what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls the “danger of a single story.” The lived subjectivities of women are multiple, intersectional, and ever-changing. The works selected for this class, as well as the feminist theory we apply, represent voices heard, shamed, silenced, etc. The course readings cannot speak for all women, and the lives discussed tell stories that may be dissimilar than our own. At many times this semester, we will discuss topics that encompass race, violence, sexuality, and others that may bring discomfort. This is not gratuitous. Rather, these readings were chosen to build spaces of understanding, hopefully across belief systems and lived experiences. All voices are welcome. I hope we will approach these texts and issues with support, kindness, and encouragement. We have so much to learn this semester.
Interestingly, Adichie’s message, not only excerpted on page one of the syllabus but watched in its entirety during the first class session, became a common refrain, a repeated dance step, if you will. During the reflective part of the final exam, for example, half the class returned to this message unprompted.
Our college tells us never to lead with the syllabus on the first day; instead, we are told to use an engaging activity. The message is clear: syllabi are a necessary rhythm, but they should not carry the entire class choreography. This means that I can finish the obligatory syllabi with a quick changing of dates and then focus on setting a much more important tempo through a carefully choreographed activity, one that will carry us through the dance of the semester.
ProFmagazine asks: “What is your favorite way to begin a class on day one of the semester?”