The humble syllabus puts students first

During the 2007-08 financial crisis, many experienced what literary scholars call a “crisis of representation”. Globally, more than $15-trillion seemed to evaporate, and people wondered: “Wait a second, what is money? How could all of this value just disappear? If this thing that represented that other thing can vanish, was there ever anything there in the first place?”

Those of us who teach at universities are currently going through something similar because of Covid-19. Losing most of the physical markers of academic life — no classrooms or offices, and students instead beamed into our homes via Zoom — has forced us to question what a university is and what higher education means.

Online learning can be sterile

In 2021, the answer is not obvious — and not only because the pandemic-induced economic crisis will probably cause a host of small colleges, especially in the United States, to vanish in the same way our money did. Virtual teaching is nothing like the real thing, just as face-to-face business is not the same as online business. Subtract dorm life, parties, physical classrooms and office hours in actual offices from the higher education experience, and what remains is quite sterile.

But this pared-down environment may also be revealing something essential that had been hidden by all the climbing walls, cafeterias, and culture wars — namely, the mechanism by which learning happens. What should students be able to do at the end of the course that they can’t do at the beginning? What happens when we ask that question? By building their courses backwards in this way, professors could then add the needed skills in stages. This simple idea is not exactly new, but it is not at the centre of current higher  education debates.

The algorithm danger

Partly because faculty have not organised themselves to answer the essential question of what and how universities teach, that task has fallen increasingly to administrators responsible for “assessment”. A set of “measurable objectives” is set in various planning and accreditation documents, and “student outcomes” are standardised at the institutional level. Many professors fear that these administrative structures and strictures are gaining greater purchase during the pandemic. Online courses can be monitored and recorded, and may come to resemble algorithms rather than learning communities.

But long before college presidents had MBAs and academic human resources managers had more job security than professors, US higher education had its own planning document: the humble course syllabus.

Many professors worry that the syllabus has itself fallen prey to too many bureaucratic requirements, including quasi-legal disclaimers about academic honesty, accommodations for special learning needs and grievance policies. Yet, at its heart, the syllabus is a piece of writing that a teacher crafts in order to imagine a classroom community into being.

That is not the traditional view, of course. Back in the mid-twentieth century, the syllabus was mostly a list of the knowledge a professor would deliver to students. But today, the syllabus is an opportunity to plot a story in which the students — not teachers — are the protagonists. Devising one gives any teacher the chance to do what good writers do: engage empathetically with others’ experiences. That way, teachers can create classes that take students through difficulty and change to somewhere new.

We are not advocating making every class somehow “vocational,” much less sentimentalising the hard work of learning. Rather, teachers should plan their courses backwards by developing assignments — readings, experiments, and projects — in a progression so that students learn “how” as much as “what”, week by week, even class by class.

Technology of all kinds can be critical, and especially now, when almost all of us are teaching on screen. But it is, and must be, a tool, not a proxy. No classroom teacher ever thought that the blackboard or chalk was doing the teaching, yet today we risk imagining that our sophisticated technology can make up for the lack of a robust, practical pedagogy. 

Professors who are asking how tech can improve their teaching are asking the wrong question.

Rethinking the dynamic

Using the pandemic to reimagine the goals of teaching might be the unexpected upside of a miserable situation. Teachers can find within this crisis the opportunity to rethink the precious classroom dynamic. After all, teaching students how to learn, and to learn how to do things themselves beyond the classroom, is education’s necessary gift to society.

Giving that gift, and making sure it is received, will require a lot of good writing — not the bureaucratic or disposable kind, but something more imaginative. That may not sound like the syllabus you remember from your own university days, but it is what we need now.

As Winston Churchill famously said near the end of World War II, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” The Covid-19 crisis is the most serious that American higher education has ever faced. Indeed it has affected education the world over. The opportunity is ours to squander, or take advantage of. — © Project Syndicate.

William Germano is professor of English at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art’s Center for Writing. Kit Nicholls is director of the Center for Writing at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. They are the coauthors of Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything (Princeton University Press, 2020)

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