Open tabs in my browser: course and syllabus design

Open tabs in my browser: course and syllabus design

I, like many of my colleagues, am busy planning my courses and putting together syllabi for a fast-approaching fall semester. Along with student/peer evaluations and my own perceptions of how I want the courses to go, I’ve been using some resources to help me in the process of course and syllabus design this month.

“How I got excited about teaching again” by Jill Walker Rettberg

I decided to change the two obligatory assignments from the typical “write a short essay” and instead choose something that would help support my ultimate goal, that students go out and build a better society!

When I was planning my Women’s Lives Online course from scratch last winter, this post was the single most helpful thing I read. Rettberg works through a handout from Dee Fink, a higher ed “consultant on college teaching and faculty development.” The handout’s questions and diagrams challenged me to approach course design methodically, and Rettberg’s example of filling it out for her own course planning is insightful. I really appreciate how Rettberg exposes the backwardness of deciding the readings/books BEFORE deciding what students should learn and take away from the course. Also, I love the point that if you are weary of teaching, one way to get excited again is to work on becoming a better teacher.

“What I’ve Learned: Three Steps to Designing Powerful Syllabi” by Robin Bernstein

Your syllabi will be most powerful when you lead with the questions, “Who are my students? And what do I want them to learn?”

This post includes excellent thoughts on connecting pedagogical goals with assignments, readings, and syllabus policies. Bernstein makes me rethink my somewhat rigid policies on attendance: “Sometimes teachers are strict because they feel insecure, defensive, or threatened. These feelings are normal. The problem is that the more a teacher builds them into the structure of a syllabus, the more the syllabus is teacher-focused rather than student-focused. In other words, when professors include something in the syllabus to attend primarily to our needs, we draw energy away from students’ needs.”

Tulane’s Accessible Syllabus Project

(h/t Jason B. Jones and his ProfHacker post)

Accessibility is necessary for all learning, and disability studies provides a key lens through which to question our classroom practices and resources.

This is an all-around course design resource, not just a checklist for readable fonts and alt-text. With this website, I was reminded that an “accessible syllabus” isn’t all about physical needs and cognitive differences, and it’s not just for students who need accommodations for a disability. I had to rethink not only the accessibility of my course websites, textbooks, and syllabus language, but also the way I (as a self reflected in my course materials) appear to students. What kind of instructor-student relationship am I establishing through all the words and images that compose my course? This website had me looking over my syllabus and revising it to make language more “positive” and “cooperative,” bearing out the point that a design that is accessible for people with disabilities really is better for everyone.

“Principles and practices in syllabus design” by Laura Baecher 

Creation of our syllabi [is] a chance to revisit and often [revise] our courses, seeing the process of syllabus design as a fusion of our personal, professional, and pedagogical ambitions.

This post makes me think about my syllabus somewhat selfishly, as a document that I will include in a portfolio of my work and as evidence of teaching effectiveness. With that in mind, the stakes are higher and I realize that the audience for my syllabus is not just my students, but also the faculty members on a future tenure review or (eh, who knows?) hiring committee.  I tend to see the syllabus as a utilitarian tool serving the purpose of holding a group of people together for 14 weeks. But, as a fusion of interests, it really is much more.

“The Syllabus as a Contract” by Amber Comer

This post prominently features an image of knots that look like nooses to me, so I think that’s the first cue that using contractual legalese is a poor choice when trying to establish a learning community. Also, in terms of student agency and power relations, here is a smart question:

Okay, so the syllabus is not a contract — except sometimes it actually is. Comer’s post raises a lot of questions that are good to keep thinking about even if you don’t like the contract concept. For example, the idea that some students will try to manipulate loopholes if our policies are not written clearly. This is absolutely a thing, and I have wrangled enough with academic honesty boards to know that my plagiarism policy must be fine-tuned enough to thwart strange logics. But, the “syllabus as contract” discussion continues to be so divisive and contentious within academia! It reveals the dual and conflicted nature of every college course as both the forging of a relationship between humans and an institutionalized exchange within capitalism.  How do you strike a balance when crafting language in your syllabus?

“Estimating Student Workload for Your Courses” by Natalie Houston

This post highlights the Course Workload Estimator tool developed by Rice University faculty members Elizabeth Barre and Justin Esarey. While the tool is not a perfect fit for all classes nor all teachers (I don’t give many formal exams in my classes, for example), it was a good reality check and reassurance to have some math behind the amount of reading and homework activities I assign in a 3-credit course.

“Graphic Display of Student Learning Objectives” by Billie Hara

Graphical displays are clearer to visual learners, they show how a course is organized, and they function as a map to a course.

Unless you present your syllabus as a podcast, zen garden, or interpretive dance, it is a document. Which means it will be designed. Which means that design will use visual rhetoric to say things. And, without some thought in this direction, your visual language may undermine or fail to support your verbal language. I have always struggled with how much to invest in the visual design of my syllabi, but it’s something I work on and think about a lot. Document design can be exceedingly time consuming, as Hara points out in her post. While I think visually the graphics that Hara shows in her post are somewhat busy and uninviting, I like the suggestion of using diagrams to represent the hierarchy of course objectives or even to visually map the course schedule and major units.

On the topic of visual syllabus design, here are two more stellar posts:

“Converting to a More Visual Syllabus” and “Revising for a More Visual Syllabus” by Traci Gardner a.k.a tengrrl

image showing examples of a non-visual syllabus and a visual syllabus

“before and after” versions of Traci Gardner’s “Assignments” section of her syllabus

The important take-away from Gardner is that students too often take all the blame for “not reading the syllabus.” I can’t say how many times I have heard this complaint since I’ve been teaching college — or even how many times I have MADE that complaint. “Students never read the syllabus and I am sick of answering questions that are answered in the syllabus!” But Gardner points out that our syllabus, as a document, is supposed to help readers navigate and find information. If your document is not designed to do that, then should the readers accept all the blame? To address this problem, Gardner “decided to try more of an infographic-style, with charts, framed pull-outs, and related images.” I love the “before and after” examples she shows in the post. Also she gives a shout-out to Canva which is a great tool for anyone who wants to move to a fancier, more visual syllabus design but has no clue how to do it technologically.

Syllabus aesthetics

Carly Kocurek’s History of Videogames syllabus is a visually stunning example of a visual syllabus. It would satisfy even the most demanding TL;DR-ers. Kocurek used Piktochart instead of Canva to make her infographic-style syllabus — these are both easy-to-use and free web-based apps.  I also wanted to point out one of Kevin Brock’s syllabi — not as visually busy but a fantastic example of highly accessible and navigable document design. My colleague Bill Wolff has an impeccably designed and detailed infographic version of his syllabus, appropriately created for an Information Architecture course. And Trent Kays shared another super example of an infographic syllabus — I really love the breakdown of critical questions posed in each unit of the course. Wolff and Kays both created their graphics with Piktochart.

Two more open tabs

Lastly (and maybe not directly relevant to course and syllabus design), I have these two videos as open tabs in my browser currently! They are keynotes from the Digital Pedagogy Lab happening this week at the University of Mary Washington.

1. Cathy Davidson, “Educating Higher”

From this keynote, I particularly liked Davidson’s ideas for the first day of class…

and the last day of class:

2. The other keynote — which I will watch as soon as I hit “Publish” on this post! — is Tressie McMillan Cottom, “What is Critical Learning in the Corporate University?”

Best wishes to all for a smooth start to the fall semester!