Wednesday, August 12, 2009

designing a syllabus (step 4 of 9) - readings

creating a good course reading list is the most difficult, most time-consuming, and most arduous part of designing a syllabus. it is also, i think, the most important.

good readings engage and inspire students and professors. good readings encourage students and professors to attend class and participate in class discussions. good readings make students and professors curious. good readings make students and professors want to learn more.

naturally there's not a single way to put together a set of course readings but here's a few tips that have helped me along the way.

1. collect and compile potential readings all year round. face it: most syllabi are created the weekend before classes begin. instead of designing your reading list under duress, do it all year around. the next time you read something that relates to a course you teach or want to teach, place the reading in a folder devoted to your course. for online readings, consider opening a delicious account and start a tag for each class. for example, throughout the year, when i come across a relevant reading for my digital media production class, i save it to delicious and tag it "dmp." when i'm ready to put together my syllabus i have a year's worth of relevant readings to chose from.

2. use year-end evaluations to get student feedback - positive and negative - about readings. at my university, professors are allowed, if not encouraged, to add their own questions to the more standard evaluation forms. each semester, i ask my students: "which reading or readings was your favorite?" and "which reading or readings was your least favorite?" each semester, nearly without fail, one or two readings are mentioned by the majority of students as their favorites and least favorites. favorite readings are nearly always included in the next version of the class while least favorite readings are often (yet not always) ditched.

3. assign different kinds of readings. if so few of us read academic journal articles, why do we inflict them upon our students? although i do not oppose including an academic article or two in my syllabi, i'm certainly not going to overwhelm my students with articles designed for a small - and shrinking - audience. instead, my landscape for potential readings includes popular books, popular magazines, and (once) popular newspapers.

4. assign different formats of readings. i love words on printed pages but i'm aware that good readings come in many forms. in my courses, "readings" come from printed media like books, journals, magazines, and newspapers, but also come from radio, film, television, and - increasingly and especially - the internet. i routinely assign brief and not-so-brief ted talks to my students and find that they engage in the video's ideas as smartly, if not more smartly, as they would have with a print-source.

5. look for and select free readings when possible. many of us have been talking about a time when all the readings we want to assign would be online, accessible for free. for many fields, especially my own field of media studies, that time is now. last year's version of digital media production was comprised entirely of free, online readings. it worked.

6. finally, please don't assign the same readings over and over and over again. when we assign the same readings each semester, we get lazy. we get bored - and boring. when we're bored, our students are bored. and when everyone's bored, no one learns.

the best advice i received on this matter was from jeff paris, a popular professor of philosophy at USF. at a teaching workshop conducted for new faculty in 2006, jeff suggested - i'm paraphrasing - that we never teach the same class. once we feel comfortable with a class, jeff said, once we know what it's about and what to assign, kill it. ditch it. or give it away.

and begin designing a new one.

once you have your reading list, add it to your syllabus, save the document, shut down your computer, and celebrate your progress.


Paris said...

Thanks for the nod. You got it right, with the minor addition that I somewhat arrogantly (though I would apply this to others as well) propose that one changes and develops a course until it is perfect, it all clicks. And then, at that very moment, one abandons it to the land of never again. I love your suggestion - which I might or might not have said, and if I did then well good for me - that even better than chucking it is giving it away.

By the way, I write my syallabi 3-4 months in advance, tinker with it a bit over time, and then make some final changes in the last week or so before it begins. I need to draw up the syllabus in order to decide what books to order [1]. And in any case, I like to imagine the course when in a period of great excitement, which is usually not far from the moment that I've decided to teach this or that course.

1. Yes, I still work almost exclusively from that relic of the 15th - 20th centuries, the printed book. I consider reading to be a tactile art, and although I do not expect that I'll be able to keep this up forever (realities of floundering publishing industry?), I will do it as long as I can. Pinky at the endnotes, middle finger pressed up against the spine, index finger grazes lightly across the tongue for just enough moisture to draw back the next page... Leaf forward and back, looking for that line you know was just about two-thirds up from the bottom on the right hand side, seeing a word jump out at you and reading that instead... Knowing that in an increasingly virtual world of production there are yet things of weight [a] that indicate the portent enclosed therein.

a. There are some Infinite Summerers out there who are kindling their way through Infinite Jest. I am saddened, since part of the work of the text is to negotiate the physicality of the text-object itself.

Bryan's workshop blog said...

Fine advice, David. I like the diversity of it, from information politics to timing.

Did you see Tim Burke's post this week about why one should post syllabi to the open Web?

david silver said...

jeff - can i just say how much i love how you often include footnotes (and footnotes within footnotes) in your blog comments?

thanks for the addition about writing the syllabi 3-4 months in advance. the ordering book thing makes sense but even more, to me, is the idea of imagining one's courses within a sphere of excitement. right on.

also, i think i may have overstated my case. last year, when teaching our intro to media studies class, i was persuaded by andrew goodwin (professor of pop) to include orwell's 1984 and it was a huge success. it was wonderful seeing all the students come to class with their well-read and dog-eared paperback copies. i very much believe in books and the non-virtual.

david silver said...

hey bryan - no, i had not seen tim burke's post but i will certainly read it shortly - thank you. putting syllabi online - for free and unwalled - figures into my last of nine steps. =)

Paris said...

Excellent! More important than, say, a collection of essays (which are just a convenience, even if that convenience often has tremendous scholarship and care behind it), assigning a piece of literature means that the students are enacting/performing a rich historical act of turning those pages that have worked their magic on so many before them. I recommend you do this, at least once, in each class. Our students deserve it.