Of Syllabi and Self-Confidence

This month we are tackling teaching and, as is only appropriate, we will begin with how to make a syllabus and end with how to interpret course evaluations.

First things first, making a syllabus is harder than you think it is.

The root of this problem, as with many of the teaching-related issues we’ll discuss this month, is that no one teaches you how to teach.

The traditional assumption is that you have been a serious student for many years, over a decade, and that you have lots of experience with how to learn as a student. Therefore, since you know how to learn you must know how to teach.

This assumption is flawed.

Knowing how to critique the way something is built is not the same as knowing how to build a better version of it.

As a student, you have lots of experience critiquing syllabi and teaching methods. While knowing what not to do is important it is not the same as knowing what to do.

Syllabi are the sonnets of higher education–a strict form that can facilitate a breathtaking amount of creativity and beauty.

When making the syllabus for your class it’s important to remember that there are a lot of things you have to include. At my most recent institution syllabi were required to have the college’s “classroom civility” policy and the university’s “honor pledge” which was a rhyming couplet about not plagiarizing. It was also strongly recommended that all syllabi contain the phrase, “This syllabus is subject to change.”

These phrases, and others like them, need to be included because administrators view the syllabus as a contract between the university and the student. Students can, and have, sued universities over breach of contract due to syllabus alterations or information that ought to be obvious (e.g. plagiarism is bad) not being explicitly spelled out.

That’s why syllabi tend to follow such a strict form–legally, it’s a contract so you need contractual language in it.

The creativity flourishes in all of the places that are shaped by your pedagogy. In addition to the actual course material this can be the type of assignments you grade, how you grade them, or even your attendance policy.

Tomorrow, I’ll share with you one of my favorite syllabi clauses which you should feel free to copy and paste into your syllabus, if you like it. On Sunday, I’ll share a couple of my favorite assignments, which you should also feel free to copy, if you like.

For now, though, I want to speak to any readers who are putting together a syllabus for the first time. Even if you are at an institution that provides some form of training there is something altogether different about sitting down to write your first syllabus.

For one thing, it’s more difficult than it seems to know what you want students to be reading over 3 months from now.

The deeper difficulty with writing your syllabus, however, is that it can precipitate an acute bout of imposter syndrome. Every single time I have sat down to write a syllabus I have had a paralyzing moment where I ask the universe, “Who the fuck am I to teach anyone anything? I had cookie dough for breakfast and never make my bed and why would anyone think they could learn anything from me? I’m a mess and a fraud and these students are going to know it from this terrible syllabus!”

Every. Single. Time.

And do you know what?

The syllabus always comes together and I have yet to be called a fraud by a student.

I think there’s something about this syllabus panic that is, in its own perverse way, a good sign.

The process of getting a PhD is one of continued specialization. You know more and more about a very narrow range of things. As this happens, you simultaneously become more and more aware of how very much you don’t know and will never know.

But that isn’t a flaw. That’s just being human.

You may not be an expert on every subject your course will cover–you may be learning right along with your students. That’s fine.

What you do know is how to learn.

Your job isn’t to be the expert in the room on every single topic. Your job is to teach them how to learn. You are the expert on how to learn because you have more experience than they do in how to study, how to critique, how to hypothesize, and how to make connections.

You are not offering them perfection, but rather a model of best practices of how to learn.

Viewed in that light, the weeks that are not in your specialty can be some of the best weeks for teaching because they are the weeks when you can best model how to learn for and with your students.

Remember, you absolutely deserve to be here. You can do this thing.

If all else fails, remember the sage advice of my ultimate teaching mentor, Dr. Mardia Bishop, “You only ever need to be one day ahead of the students. If you’re a week ahead they’ll think you’re God.”

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