Things I Think About Before I Ever Enter a Classroom #3(4): How Does My Syllabus Support My View of Myself and My Class?

I apologize to everyone for the long hiatus. Comps. When I post about them you will understand, if you do not already, why that single word meant two and a half months of silence on my part when it comes to this blog. But, I’m back and eager to get back into a more regular routine of sharing what I can about what I know about navigating grad school. As a reminder, we-re smack-dab in the middle of a four-part series of teaching-related posts on “Things I Think About Before I Ever Enter a Classroom.” Without further ado, let’s get restarted, shall we?

Things I Think About Before I Ever Enter a Classroom #3(4):

How Does My Syllabus Support My View Of Myself And My Class?

In my last post in this series, I tackled the second and third of the five-part list of things I like to think about carefully in designing my teaching persona and courses. This post deals with the fourth element of the list: how I encode a syllabus with the principles and ideologies I claim for myself as a teacher and for the instructional work I do in my classes.

Obviously, the first step in this process is to clearly define for yourself what those principles, ideologies, and instructional work are. The kinds of thinking that go into this definition are outlined in the first two posts in this series, “Who ARE You in There?” and “What Do I Want My Students to Get Out Of This Class?” I gave long and reflective answers in the earlier posts in this series, but in a nutshell, here are my summary responses:

“Who ARE You in There?”

As their teacher, I care about my students as people, but more so as learners in my classroom. I don’t make excuses or allow my students to make excuses for poor academic performance. I serve as a resource for them, and I provide an encouraging, facilitative, positive, inclusive learning environment, but they have to do the learning.

As their teacher, I am invested in their development as members of the community and as individuals, but only to the point where my class objectives meet their lifestyles. I don’t seek to change their beliefs or ideologies or values, and I don’t pry into their personal lives. But I demand that they bring critical thinking to bear on any given subject in my class and I insist that they contribute to a safe, positive, and inclusive critical environment.

It’s on the syllabus so I don’t have to think about it. The syllabus is my blueprint for the course. It holds me accountable, and it holds the students accountable. It’s there so I don’t have to think about it and can focus on teaching. It’s there so my students know how to succeed in this class. It is as transparent and thorough a document as I can contrive it to be.

I take my work as an educator very, very seriously. I take myself as a person very seriously. I take my students as people very seriously. But I refuse to take myself seriously in the classroom. I take my teaching seriously—I select course objectives, choose readings, and design activities that foster development of the skills my students need in order to succeed. I take myself as an educator seriously—in the classroom I am focused on my students’ learning on the pedagogy, on the interaction, on improving. And I take my students seriously by offering my experience as a resource for them and helping them develop the skills they need to be successful learners. If I sneeze or trip on things or forget what I was saying, everyone gets to laugh.

I’m not perfect and that’s what makes it so much fun. If I knew everything about teaching and were a perfect teacher in every class session in every course I ever taught, not only would I be terrifically bored, but I think I would also be terrifically boring. If I stayed in control of the class the entire time, none of us would get very far. I like to learn through teaching, to learn from my students, and not always to be in charge and to be the expert. That way, I get to have fun discovering new things, too.

Just be yourself. I can be very stubborn and have extremely strong feelings about certain issues as a person, but I do not allow my personal feelings to cloud my judgment as an educator. I criticize my students’ performance, but when I am critical it is always in the interest of helping them become better thinkers and learners. I seek to keep things transparent and lines of communication open because I value my students and what they think. Most importantly, although it’s easier if they do and obviously I prefer it, I don’t expect my students to like me, and they don’t have to like me in order for me to be an effective instructor for them; they just have to be able to use my instruction to meet the course objectives.

So, how does all of this translate on my syllabus? Mostly, this is encoded into the “front matter”—the policies and regulations for how the class is run and what students need to know in order to be successful learners in the class.

That I care about my students as people, but more so as learners in my classroom is evident when I clearly explain the accommodations I am willing to make as an instructor, the University resources available to them, like the Office of Accessibility Resources, the Learning Center, and the Dean of Students’ Office, and make sure they know how I prefer to be contacted and when I’m available to meet with them one-on-one for help. This codes into the syllabus that I am concerned with their success, but also willing to serve as a resource when they are struggling.

That I am invested in their development as members of the community and as individuals, but only to the point where my class objectives meet their lifestyles is clear in the opening statement of my policies section (“My basic expectation of you as university students is that you will be in class on time and prepared, that you will participate actively, that you will conduct yourselves responsibly and with respect for everyone in class, and that you will give me your best effort”) and in my attendance policy: “I do not differentiate between excused and unexcused absences. Because “life happens,” you are permitted two (2) absences with no penalty. A third absence will result in a full letter grade deduction from your final grade, while four absences will result in a non-negotiable failure of the course for the term. Student athletes are not exempt from the attendance policy; if you are an athlete, you are strongly encouraged to check your schedule to determine whether there will be too many conflicts to support your continued enrollment in this section. When absent, you are responsible for all materials missed and for turning in any due assignments before you miss class. ALWAYS check blackboard for updates on assignments and due dates when you are absent from class. You are by state law allowed two excused absences due to religious holidays. These absences do not count toward the total maximum allowed above. If you plan to miss class due to a religious holiday, you must notify me by email at least 48 hours prior to the absence. You are still responsible for all of the materials you miss and for turning in due assignments before missing class.” It is also encoded into the assignments and due dates section:Assignments are due on or before their due date, regardless of circumstances. Technological problems, malfunctions, or misunderstandings, are not grounds for excuse or exemption from this policy. If you are absent the day an assignment is due, you must have it in to me before or on that day and by our normal meeting time or it will not be counted. If you are in class the day an assignment is due, it is due at the beginning of class. If you are tardy to class the day an assignment is due, it is highly unlikely that I am going to accept it, barring hard evidence in the form of a doctor’s note or some other documentation that the tardiness was unavoidable and not because of last-minute printing out of a last-minute completed assignment. I do not accept late work. Assignments may be handed in early. If you are struggling, come see me before, not after, an assignment is due.” In other words, there are clear boundaries and guidelines for the intersection between my students’ personal lives and the course requirements, and I make sure they are aware of these boundaries and guidelines right from the beginning. I won’t pry into their lives, but I also require that they try not to let their lives interfere with the course and their performance in it.

That it’s on the syllabus so I don’t have to think about it is literal. In addition to having a substantial policies and guideline section addressing Academic Integrity, Accommodations, Assignments and Due Dates, Attendance, Grading Scale, Technology Policy, Discussing and Disputing a Grade, Meeting With/ Contacting Me, and the University resources and their contact information, I also plot out the entire course—readings, in-class and homework assignments, discussions, and the like—mapping out the material I want to cover in each class session. While it takes more time on the front end, such a detailed syllabus pays off in spades by the middle of the term when you are frazzled and things are hectic and you really do not have time to think about what you are going to be doing in class, or what your policy is if Jane Doe has missed 5 days and is asking if she will fail for absences if she misses class again to observe Rosh Hashannah. You don’t have to think about it, if everything is on your syllabus—you just have to review your syllabus to remind yourself. I actually take that a step further with my freshman courses by throwing the syllabus up on the Elmo and looking at “what we did last week, what we’re doing this week, and what we’ll be doing next week” with them on the first day of each week throughout the term. It not only refreshes your own memory, but also gets them in the habit of consulting the syllabus, and you know no one is going to be able to claim s/he didn’t know about an assignment.

That I take my work as an educator very, very seriously. I take myself as a person very seriously. I take my students as people very seriously. But I refuse to take myself seriously is incorporated into my syllabus overall because of its careful design and organization and the inclusion of all contact and resource information, and more specifically by my inclusion and explanation of the course objectives and a list of the assignments my students will be doing for the class with a brief description and how much of their grade each assignment counts for, as well as the detailed class schedule with all due dates bolded, and a page explaining the general rubric by which they will be assessed throughout the course, so my students know from the beginning what they need to do in order to succeed in the course. I also try to insert a little humor here and there, as in my email policy: “For all communication related to this course, please do me the courtesy of putting your last name and English 101 or Writing I in the subject line, so I know what this is in reference to; using your UNCG email account will best prevent me from accidentally deleting your message in the mistaken belief that anything from Lovethebruins@hotmail.com must be spam.” (If students are paying attention, now they know a little personal information about me as well…. I’m a Boston teams fan. )

That I’m not perfect and that’s what makes it so much fun is encoded into the course design of my syllabus because I always devote several class sessions to student-led discussions, in which I turn over the reins and have the students pose and discuss questions they come up with about the materials we are covering in class. Obviously, I give them guidelines for the kinds of questions they should be asking, and those questions need to be based on the week’s readings, but beyond that I leave this assignment wide open, so the class is not always about me and what I know or think is interesting. I allow it to become a place of inquiry where my students can (and often do!) astonish and delight me with their own pockets of knowledge and bits of insight. This often leads to much better thinking and analysis on the part of individuals, as well as creating a stronger sense of community, and we are creating knowledge together rather than my just delivering it to them. Bonus—sometimes it gives me new insight that leads to breakthroughs in my approach to reading, writing about, or teaching a text or set of texts!

I hope that just be yourself is clear in my careful attention to ensuring that my students have all of the information I can provide them with concerning how I approach my class and what my expectations are. When I go over the syllabus with them on the first day, I always insert comments and elaborate as I see fit, and I try to deliver this information with humor and energy. While I’m going over the schedule of readings, I also try to give them a snippet of the kind of thinking about writing/reading they can expect to develop, so they get a little taste of my teaching style. This all permits them to determine whether they think they can work with me.

“What Do I Want My Students to Get Out Of This Class?”

It’s so much easier to explain how to encode what you want your students to get out of the class into your syllabus, because really, that’s what the document should do: clearly outline your expectations of your students, what they can expect from you and from the class, the course objectives, and the student learning outcomes. All I will say beyond that, is that you should have the course objectives and the student learning outcomes as close to the beginning of the syllabus as you can get them—ideally, directly under the “course description” on the first page—and you should use those as the chief determiner of the assignments you design and the readings you select for the class. If your course is “writing intensive” then your schedule should reflect that by including in-class and out of class writing assignments in a variety of genres. If your course is “speaking intensive” students should be able to see clearly when and how they will be expected to develop and use their speaking skills over the course of the term. If your course objectives state that “students will read in a variety of literary forms and genres” then you should seek to diversify the readings accordingly, rather than focusing mainly on your own specialty area. If your course objectives claim that the students will examine the materials in a global context, then your readings and assignments should be selected to offer  a variety of non-American (or, non-whichever country you are teaching in) voices.

If the student learning outcomes state that students will Employ drafting, peer review, and revision techniques in order to improve content, style, and structure of their own writing” then you should both instruct them on and offer time in class for them to develop drafting, revision, and peer reviewing skills. I’ve heard a lot of TAs teaching writing classes state that they don’t let their students work on their papers during class. I think that’s a mistake, because it contradicts what the class objectives and student learning outcomes claim the student will learn. Likewise, in an introductory literature class, if the student learning outcomes state “students will develop close reading skills” then you should be certain to include several opportunities for them to receive instruction in and actually practice for themselves those skills during class, rather than expecting them to do all of the reading outside of class. Think carefully about what your course objectives and student learning outcomes are telling the student to expect from the course, and make sure that both your schedule of readings and assignment designs reflect those objectives and outcomes. This ensures not only that students are able to meet those outcomes and succeed on the class, but also that the class is logically and coherently organized and not confusing.

In general, I like to structure my schedule of readings—the texts I’ve chosen for the course—around the course objectives, and then align the assignments students complete based on those readings with the student learning outcomes, because I think this makes for cleaner assessment practices. For example, let’s say I’m teaching an introduction to poetry class (which I’ll be doing next term!) and one of the course objectives is, “to trace the development of one or more poetic forms through several time periods” while one of the student learning outcomes is, “Identify and/or describe orally and in writing some of the various social, historical, cultural, and/or theoretical contexts in which literary texts have been written and interpreted.” I might then select sonnets from the Renaissance through the 20th century for inclusion on the syllabus as course readings and the subject of class discussion and lectures, and then as an assessment tool for student learning outcomes, have the students write an essay focusing on one social, historical, cultural, or theoretical aspect as a lens for analyzing the development of this poetic form through two or three sonnets of their choice, from at least two different time periods. The readings then support the course objectives, and those objectives support the student learning outcomes, and I’m able to assess how well this is working through how well my students are able to complete the assignment.

This might seem a little complicated, but it’s not hard to find ways to align the objectives and student learning outcomes once you get the hang of it. When I’m not sure, or when I’m developing something new, I tend to run my readings and assignments by people I trust, like other TAs who I think are really good at the work, or our program supervisor, or my mentors. I very much recommend this practice, because you can also learn what works from others and incorporate new materials and assignments into your syllabi. As a wonderful colleague says about the lesson plans, assignments, readings, and class activities she generously and regularly shares on Facebook, “Everyone should feel free to steal everything, if it will help their teaching!”

In a nutshell, I always seek to encode my teaching philosophy and pedagogical objectives within my syllabus as fully as possible, because I think it makes it easier for students to succeed as learners when they can clearly see that what you say you expect from them, what you say they can expect from you, the course objectives, and the student learning outcomes, inform the overall structure and design of the course, and that each reading and assignment can be clearly linked to those objectives and outcomes. The class then seems logical and organized to them, and they’re better able to follow what you are doing, which ultimately means they are better able to develop confidence in you as an instructor and in themselves as learners. I think this is the true point of the syllabus—the blueprint of the class you have developed: to serve as the foundation for a positive learning experience, based on clear and measurable objectives and outcomes, delivered through an organized and coherent pedagogical design, by an authentic professor who evinces care and concern for the course and the learners taking it.

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
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