Philosophy meets reality in syllabus design

Today, I met with a thoughtful group of colleagues to discuss syllabus design.  Since it’s nearing the end of the semester in many parts of the United States, it might seem like an odd time to discuss creating new syllabi.  But a colleague thought that it would be a great professional development session and I was willing to give a try.  While I was hoping to focus on creative ways to foster professionalism and engage students through well-designed syllabi, I also worried that the session could devolve into folks just airing their complaints about the new generation of students.  I’m happy to say that the discussion didn’t devolve into a complain and moan session.  Or at least not very much.

While we discussed the language we use to outline attendance policies and technology use, we also discussed our teaching philosophies and how they are communicated in the syllabi we share with our students.  One aspect was really clear in the discussion:  many of us struggle with the dichotomy between philosophy and reality.  Philosophically, many of us want to provide opportunities for our students to take ownership of their own learning.  We want them to be able to make choices that impact their instructional futures and give them the space to personalize their learning.  Philosophically, we strive to be student-centered instructors that motivate and inspire our students to greatness.

But then reality comes barging in.  Reality makes us confront the consequences of our teaching philosophies.  Giving students choice might mean that students may not choose to come to class.  They may also choose to fail.  Giving students ownership of their learning also requires that students are mature enough to be responsible stewards of their education, which may not always be the case.  And that’s where instructors face the struggle.  How do we design syllabi that effectively and authentically communicate our teaching philosophies but also reflect the reality we’re likely to face when working with young adults?  Realistically, we need to create syllabi that communicate rules and regulations and take control of the chaos that can happen in our classrooms.

I’d like to say that our group solved this challenge today.  But we didn’t.  We outlined some ideas (grading contracts, for instance) but more than anything we recognized the struggle we all face.  Throughout the discussion, I was reminded of a scene from one of my favorite movies, A Few Good Men.  As the movie reaches the climactic courtroom scene, Colonel Jessup, the main antagonist of the film, discusses how the country needs strong authoritarians like him guarding its borders and keeping it safe. He explains that his existence, “while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives! You don’t want the truth, because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall.”

In some ways, that how our syllabi work.  We include features that may sometimes appear “grotesque and incomprehensible” in comparison to our own teaching philosophies.  But they also may be necessary evils when we face the realities of teaching students.

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