5 Ways I’m Changing My Syllabi This Semester

This semester, I’m not teaching any new courses, so with two weeks to go until classes begin, I’m refreshing previous syllabi, but I want to do more than change the dates.The following are five steps I’m taking to continue developing syllabi that focus on improving learning instead of being mere compilations of rules and regulations.

  1. Adding my own brief explanation of each course, focused on its overarching and disciplinary questions, before the required description and outcomes. I plan to have students write their best guesses at the answers to the questions on the first day and then have them revisit those questions at the midterm and the end of the semester. In part this change is based on Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do, as he suggests that starting with questions is part of the essential process of creating a “natural critical environment.” It is also influenced by the importance of helping students to see the value of a discipline as part of a general education course, which the students in last semester’s postcolonial studies learning community helped me to see. For Introduction to Literature, I ask:

    How can we think about literature, and why would you want to?

  2. Focusing more on visual design. I have always given my students both printed and digital syllabuses with the latter in a format that allows them to change the font or its size so that students with visual impairments have more options for accessibility. My goal here, however, goes beyond readability. I want the syllabus to be visually appealing and to look friendly. I am playing with the typeface and making sure each printed page has a visual element such as a picture or a chart.
  3. Adding a list of required attitudes and beliefs, such as

    Everyone can improve their writing through consistent practice.

    My hope here is to create a ground for the building of metacognitive skills from day one. I have already been including the outcomes of prerequisite courses and what students should do if they do not feel confident in their ability to do them.

  4. Simplifying the language by sticking to the 1000 most-used English words when feasible. For introductory courses, I am also putting other words that are important to the course itself in bold and using them in a syllabus vocabulary quiz on the second day of class. The goal is to get students in the habit of looking up words they don’t know and to establish some familiarity with the basic language of the discipline.
  5. Noting that if students have excellent attendance, I will round their final grades up, per this Vitae “Dear Forums…” post.


What are you adding to (or removing from) your syllabi this semester?

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Essay: Whither Teaching in the University Novel?

Now that I have converted my doctoral thesis into a book, my critical work is moving in two directions. One looks at the questions raised during my first project, mostly related to how power, pleasure, play, and pedagogy overlap in James Joyce’s work. (Yes, I do have an alliteration problem.) The other direction considers pedagogy in other texts. It is this latter line of inquiry that led to “Whither Teaching in the University Novel?”, which started with the question of why direct representation of classroom teaching is so limited in university fiction. The article has been published as part of a special issue of American, British and Canadian Studies Journal on academic fiction, and you can read it in full at http://www.degruyter.com/downloadpdf/j/abcsj.2016.26.issue-1/abcsj-2016-0002/abcsj-2016-0002.xml

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Why Melania Trump’s Plagiarism Matters

Should coverage of Melania Trump’s plagiarism outweigh coverage of the racism, misogyny, and other bigotries on display at the Republican National Convention? Probably not, but it does have a deeper relevance than its function in further exposing the absurdity of the Trump candidacy.

Let’s start here: intellectual communities build themselves through acts of citation. Bloggers link; scholars footnote or in-text cite. In some non-western cultures, writers may include passages in ways that western scholars would view as plagiarism, but I believe that this generally occurs in cultures in which an educated person would be expected to recognize the sources without a citation. It functions similarly to allusion and is considered a way of showing respect to the original writer. In context, Melania Trump’s appropriations show disrespect for word work (and play) and thought—more evidence, as if we needed it, of anti-intellectualism.

But it gets worse with Republican National Convention chief strategist Sean Spicer’s defense of Melania Trump’s speech, and I’m not talking about the strangeness of appealing to My Little Pony (though the willingness to admit that convention speeches have no more complexity or thought to them than a children’s show is striking). Instead, I want to focus on this claim:

I mean if we want to take a bunch of phrases and run them through a Google and say, ‘Hey, who else has said them,’ I can do that in five minutes.

Well, yes. That is how someone lacking access to an automated plagiarism checker might go about finding copied or patchwritten material, but Spicer seems to be suggesting that such a procedure will uncover levels of copying similar to Melania Trump’s in any speech or text. Besides being demonstrably false, this claim suggests a rejection of the possibility of creative thought, as if new ways of speaking and thinking beyond “common words and values” cannot exist. And I have to wonder if that represents the way Spicer believes the world is already or if, instead, it demonstrates the way the Republican leadership would like the world to be.

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