Friday, February 10, 2012

Syllabus Crap Detector

As I've been working recently on designing several courses, I've found some weird stuff, as usual. Part of our process is to review syllabi of similar courses being taught at other universities. We perform somewhat of the equivalent of a literature review to determine what is being taught and how, in order to determine what minimum standards need to be covered and where there may be places that we can make our programs better by filling in the holes missed by others.

The following are a few quotes that I have found interesting for various reasons:
  • Regular attendance is rewarded because you will be exposed to what I think you need to know.
  • When I talk, be quiet.
  • Put newspapers away 20 seconds before class starts.
  • I will clear the memory of all programmable calculators before each test.
  • Get yourself a notebook or 3-ring binder, and start a journal to record your impressions/analysis about what you’re learning from your journalism reading. (in a class with large blogging, twitter, and social media components)

I found a particular faculty member, though, whose syllabus really takes the cake. Looking up his profile on ratemyprofessors, student comments seemed to confirm what I observed: unorganized, hard to follow, illogical, makes no sense whatsoever, don't expect straight answers to your questions, writes smart remarks back to the students, and gets off subject very easily. He seems to be the opposite extreme of the faculty who wrote the first four statements in the list above. He may be friends with the person who wrote the inconsistent final statement above.

So what is so illogical or hard to follow? Let's go to the syllabus (which happens to be in comic sans of all things), shall we?

The course has a subtitle of How to build your "Crap Detector" which is only referred to in one other place in the syllabus. I was hoping the other reference would help in understanding what he's talking about. You can probably guess that it doesn't. One of the learning objectives of the course is to "provide personally and socially meaningful responses to what Roland Barthes once called the 'question par excellence': 'Why the world? what is the meaning of things?' (e.g., design and use an effective 'crap detector')". So I looked up Barthes and found that he was a French literary theorist. Good enough, but what of this question par excellence?

I looked that up also. In talking about the difference between the technical and artisanal functions of writers and authors, Barthes discusses a paradox that occurs. "And the miracle, so to speak, is that this narcissistic activity has always provoked an interrogation of the world: by enclosing himself in the how to write, the author ultimately discovers the open question par excellence: why the world? What is the meaning of things? In short, it is precisely when the author's work becomes its own end that it regains a mediating character; the author conceives of literature as an end, the world restores it to him as a means; and it is in this perpetual inconclusiveness that the author rediscovers the world, an alien world moreover, since literature represents it as a question-never, finally, as an answer."

It's pretty deep stuff. Mull it over. Ponder. Enlighten yourself as you discover the hidden meaning of Barthes' paradox. Apply it to your own life and career. Then come back to the question at hand, and ask yourself what this has to do with a crap detector. I'm still not totally sure what a crap detector is, but if I had one, it would be going off right now, and we've got a ways to go.

In terms of inconsistency, in one area of the syllabus regarding how grades are earned, it states that you can receive an F for class abandonment, which in a different part of the syllabus he explains means more than 3 absences. In yet a third location in the syllabus talking about attendance, he seemingly confirms that excessive absences may result in unsuccessful course completion but then immediately proceeds to state that more than 3 absences will result in a reduction of one full letter grade. His syllabus also states that students may fail if they do not demonstrate mastery of writing and numeracy skills. He may fail his own class given his apparent lack of ability to think and express himself effectively in quantitative terms.

According to the syllabus, a student can be considered cheating by communicating in any way with another member of the class. This sounds like something the faculty who wrote the first four statements above might want to adopt in their classes.

There's more, but I'll end with this professor's teaching philosophy from the department's website:

I love mental spelunking. Each semester I get to take students through a dark cave of stalactite and stalagmite ideas, pointing the light at the ceiling-stuck cat or a three-legged donkey. “Over there,” I yell, turning the light in another direction. “Can you see it? Can you see it? . . . the NAKED CHICKEN, caught mid-stride in the next room?” With furrowed brows and searching eyes, students squint at the dark shadows, searching for even a hint of beak or comb. “Where? Where?” they ask. Then at last . . . “I see it! I see it!” one cries.

Then here is the really best part. She takes the light herself and points it far into the cave. “Can you see the lovely apple tree? Don’t you just love apples?” she says. My eyes follow the light, and there it is, right where it has always been, apples and all. But I SEE IT for the first time.

“Is that the tree of knowledge?” one asks. And, “was that the naked chicken of wisdom?” chimes another. “A look under the feathers.”

Then we all laugh together at our possibilities till our joyful tears form new mystery-shapes of our own on the floor, someday to be discovered . . . and I am once again blessed.

I have to say that as strange as it is, the more I read the teaching philosphy, the more I actually like it. I'm not so sure about the naked chicken; I believe the idea is a sound one, even if execution is lacking.

The extremes of the first few items in the list at the beginning of this post and of the who-knows-what-you're-going-to-get class by the naked chicken of wisdom both need to be tempered. If we bring the two components of structure and creativity together, we might come up with this college composition course based on The Simpsons. Now that's a syllabus!

1 comment:

Joel Gardner said...

Three words for you, Rob:


Thanks for sharing. Gotta love the ridiculousness. Keep 'em coming, Rob...