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How to Write a Dream Syllabus
My Fellow Shennyer:
Yesterday, I practiced the accordion for the first time in over a year. Here’s a picture of me doing it:
I unfurrowed my brow there to try to look more handsome, because it was v. frustrating. I wanted to learn the organ-and-bass parts to Brian Eno’s outstanding ‘Mother Whale Eyeless’, and my music training made figuring out the notes all very simple, but the instrument made it all very hard, tasking me with hitting solid eighth notes on a right-hand key while playing a syncopated rhythm on the left-hand bass keys. I couldn’t do it. Not even for a measure.
Playing songs I love on the accordion is easy to figure out but hard to achieve, and in that gap lies training, or maybe comfort. It’s not about confidence, if anything it’s about humility. There’s a writing metaphor in here somewhere, or—per this week’s Main Matter—a teaching one. These days, I want to see what happens when I give up on things I know, bear the pain of being very bad at something, for a time.
1. Rear Admiral Joseph’s Original London Dry Gin
I’m trying to drink less, and yet here I am endorsing an $8 bottle of gin. Do I drink more gin each night than the Queen did? She lived for 180 years, so maybe I’m onto something. At any rate, after finding I made good vodka martinis at home but bad gin martinis, my pal Beth suggested I was using bad gin.
I subscribe to the myth that store-branded booze is top-shelf booze in disguise, and this looked a whole hell of a lot like a Beefeater bottle, so I bought one and had N set me up a blind taste test. I always want these to go my way, with the cheap thing I’m tasting winning out over the expensive thing. I’ve tasted mustards this way, vodkas and seasoned salts, and the spendy stuff always tastes better. So what a delight to find that I preferred the $8 gin to the $24 one: same bright juniper citrusy notes but even more smoothness over the Beefeater. Yes, I buy them 4 at a time.
2. This Joke
I heard this joke in the pilot episode of Warrior, a not very well–written show on Max that we started mostly because it’s set in 19thC San Francisco, and there’s much pleasure in watching Chinese immigrants brutally hurt racist white guys who keep wanting to pick fights. Anyway, the joke’s endorsed in how it’s found a way to work into a joke a lexical formulation I’ve long noted but never found a way to work into a joke:
Two nuns are riding through the city on bicycles, and one of them takes the other down a narrow cobblestone road.
‘I’ve never come this way before,’ the nun says.
The other nun goes: ‘It’s probably the cobblestones.’
How to Write a Dream Syllabus
Recently, I read a post on Kate McKean’s Agents & Books substack about book contracts,which quoted her mentor: ‘Contracts are scar tissue.’ I thought, So are syllabi—or at least that’s what mine have come over 20 years to exhibit: a history of being burned.
I don’t know where I picked up the notion that a syllabus is a contract students agree to just by reading it, but that’s a power dynamic I’m no longer interested in maintaining. If my syllabus is a map of where my students are hoping to go in any given semester, how can my syllabus persona be more their guide, and less the legal counsel trying to cover his ass?
The Syllabus Persona. Mine’s been a jaded, weary soul:
I don’t care what grade you get in this class and you shouldn’t either. It’s not healthy, and it won’t help any of us learn or grow. Tell me the grade you want and I’ll give it to you. Regarding what you’re here to do—learn and grow as a writer and artist—that grade will mean far less than the qualitative feedback you get, and the self-understandings you come to in thinking and writing about your work.
That said, if you fail to do the work I assign, you will fail the course. We are, after all, an MFA program, and some aspects of the program can’t be tossed out the window. (I’ve asked.)
It’s true that I once asked the accreditation folks if we could get rid of grades, but what was that doing in my syllabus? What expectations or atmosphere were clauses like this setting before the semester even started?
I didn’t want my syllabi to be like this anymore, so this month I decided to overhaul my fall syllabus, starting not from the template of last semester’s syllabus (which is how I’ve written every syllabus since 2005), but with a blank page.
But how to fill that blank page? I had only a feeling of what I didn’t want to do.
What is a syllabus for?
That was the question I started with, and I quickly saw it was the wrong question.
Who is a syllabus for?
That’s better. After all, I write this thing and give it to a room of people. It’s for them the way your toast is for the guest of honor. So I imagined my students: at that charged back-to-school moment, that mix of dread that summer is ending and anticipation of a class they’re excited to take. Or the class they finally got into. Or the class they’ve finally allowed themselves to take. Eight out of nine of my students this fall are starting the MFA program.
I wanted my syllabus to harness that excitement and use it as fuel for learning, give them a vision for how our time together will progress, and focus on the means and mechanisms by which students learn new things. I wanted my persona to be firm but relaxed, like my onetime surf instructor who told me, ‘Oh you’ll get up on the board. I promise you.’
For inspiration, I looked again at the syllabi of my friend and sometime-colleague Ingrid Rojas Contreras, which do two things I admire:
They use a sidebar column and a main column, taking layout and design into consideration, rather than just tumbling text down six pages.
They speak invitingly to the communal nature of the learning we do in MFA classes.
I asked Ingrid about her approach to writing syllabi, and I was glad—as every syllabus is also a palimpsest—to see she’d taken it from another teacher:
There’s so much to communicate in a syllabus, from book lists to class rules to class ethos. I want my syllabus to do all that and set parameters for respect, mutual care, and jumpstart an environment in which inspiration and play can be present. I borrowed the use of a marginal column from my partner, who’s a visual art professor, and a double virgo. I love how it can set off the nitty gritty info I want them to have access at a glance, like what the course requirements may be and what the grading policies are. It gives more room on the page for things I want them to spend more time on, like how I want them to give feedback to each other, or what certain artistic and creative experiments they’ll be doing that semester.
I spent around 6 or 7 hours last week building my new syllabus from scratch (and also borrowing the marginal column…thanks, Ingrid’s partner!), and in that time—and, of course, over the last 20 years of syllabus-writing—I came up with some dos and don’ts for making a dream syllabus.
Do think about design
I get it, I’m a writer, too. I know of words, not images. Thankfully MS Word and Google Docs have tons of themes and templates for you to use. Why worry about a syllabus’s visual aesthetics? Good (or any) design makes people pay attention and helps them find info more quickly than the traditional approach, like what my school recommends…
Don’t half-ass learning outcomes
And come up with your own, not the institution’s. Academics love to grouse about learning outcomes, but if you’re not thinking about what you want your students to have learned, how do you know how to teach? I long stopped believing that learning happens by absorbing the words and lessons of ‘a master’, but all the science of learning aside, stating your learning outcomes up front if anything tells students what they can expect this semester, what they’ll take away from your class. I think of learning outcomes like tasting notes at a winery: Ooh, I’m intrigued by this one with a smoky finish. I want to try it.
Do connect your assignments to your learning outcomes
Instead of ‘Assignments’, I now call the list of assignments on my syllabus ‘Your work’, to put forth the idea that learning isn’t about passive receptivity but active engagement. For student work to aid in learning, though, it helps to know what any assignment is for. In the past, I’ve made some assignments be about propriety and compliance—Show Me You’ve Done The Reading, etc—and my syllabus language showed it. Now, I may assign things to ensure they’ve ‘done the reading’, but for the assignment to be worth assigning, I include its purpose or function in terms of student learning:
Don’t take language from your institution
A caveat: Your institution may have required boilerplate policies; mine provides tons of language about disability services, Title IX requirements, and other such policies I want my students to know, so I take all that. But my school also wants me to include this bit: ‘All course communications, like all other USF communications, will be sent to your USF official email address. You are therefore strongly encouraged to monitor that email account.’ This (a) runs counter to my practice of having students provide on day 1 their preferred email address, and (b) brings the exact kind of language into my syllabus I hate. You are therefore strongly encouraged to monitor makes students sound like Nextdoor users. It welcomes students into a homogenous institution, not an idiosyncratic classroom.
Do provide a ‘narrative’ of the semester
When students come to me as academic director with problems about a course, more often than not it’s that there seems to be little design to class sessions, or the semester as a whole. Telling the story of how your course will progress—what modules, topics, concepts, or formats it will move through—is a form of leadership that leaves students not just inspired, but feeling like they’re in good hands. Your weekly schedule may provide a detailed shape to the class, but I’m talking about showing the forest before the trees.
Don’t assume your teaching style is for everyone
No matter how good I am, or how fair or thorough, I’ve learned there’ll be students who won’t learn much from me. Once, a student tanked me on evaluations because I didn’t talk about what they should do to make their essays better. I don’t believe it’s my job to ever step in as an authority over someone else’s work, but I never said as much in class. Writing in a syllabus about your teaching style (a) clarifies the subjective nature of all teaching, and (b) signals to students who feel they need a different style of teaching to seek another class if possible.
Do be firm and clear on policies, but also flexible
When teachers come to me as academic director with problems about a student, it’s often after the student has broken one of the course policies—e.g., they’ve missed too many classes, they’ve turned in assignments too late (or not at all), they’ve said something disrespectful (or worse) to another student. What should I do? is the question. Well, hold to your policies. Make ramifications clear. But also, be flexible, because even in a class of nine people, not everyone will be able to comply with policies equally. Here’s the line I use in my syllabus now: ‘If any of the following present challenges for you, see me ASAP to find solutions together.’
Every syllabus is a palimpsest; as much as I’ve taken from teachers before me, I’ve happily given my syllabi stuff away. If you’d like to see the final product of my syllabus overhaul, for my Fall 23 graduate nonfiction workshop, I’d be happy to send you a copy.
I only ask one favor: spread the word about Shenny, however you think best. I’m doing what I can to grow this newsletter, and it’s slow and steady work. Your vocal support would mean so much. Email me [shennymag at substack dot com] with a screenshot of your Shenny-share, and I’ll send you the syllabus toot sweet. (And if you don’t need to see the syllabus, I’d still love it if you’d share this issue, or any others.)
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This week’s thing I didn’t buy at the antique store is a 1935 special edition of The Rural Educator, featuring the poets of South Dakota:
For the record, I was using Tanqueray. It’s not ‘bad gin’ but it’s not the gin for me.