The Evolution of my Syllabi
Sorry so little posting of late. I was in Italy giving a paper at the Leornungcraeft conference in Udine (and maybe someday I will write an epic about my journey and how incredibly much Swiss Air sucks -- sixteen hours late to the conference, none of it my fault). Then I came back to my daughter having two weeks of school vacation, my son's birthday party, Easter, and hundreds and hundreds of emails. Have now finished my Kalamazoo paper: "Albert S. Cook, The Invention of Cynewulf, and the Evolution of Anglo-Saxon Studies in America" and am moving on to proofreading A-D of the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia. I spent nearly three hours today and didn't finish A. Do you realize that there are 26 letters that will have to be done? Argh. Why can't people follow simple formatting conventions? Why?
But that's not what I want to write about.
Instead, I want to talk about how my syllabi have evolved over time (could anything be more exciting?). A while back (could be weeks, could be months; I don't have time to check) Scott Nokes was part of a conversation about which writers and writings belong on a medieval lit syllabus.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, I learned that I'll be mentoring a graduate student teaching medieval literature here at Wheaton. I helped said student (very minimally) with the syllabus, and it took me back to my own early, graduate school and immediate post-graduate syllabi: so complex, so ambitious, so throughouly planned out. I used to be that way.
But as time as gone on, my syllabi have evolved back into something that would be quite recognizeable to all the old farts I dissed when I was coming out of grad school: "Oh, a 'greatest hits' syllabus," I would sneer at the work of some geezerish faculty member if I noticed students using a traditional syllabus.
For myself, I tried it all: Reverse chronological order? Check. No chronology at all but rather thematic contrasts? Check. Mixture of medieval and modern? Check. Appropriations of the Medieval and their Sources? Check. Theme Course with much Medieval Material? Check.
And then there was the content of the syllabi. Non-literary texts? Check. Non-canonical literature? Check. Mix of works by women, heretics, outsiders? Check.
But that's all changed. I don't recall making a conscious decision, but very steadily my syllabi have evolved into "Greatest Hits" syllabi. And as I have done this, my courses have gotten better by just about every metric: my average grades are down, my enrollments are up, my evaluations are up, the number of students going to grad school is up, the number of students who take follow-up classes is up. I enjoy teaching my classes more.
Of course the most likely possibility is that I made an immediate switch from Young Turk to Old Fart the moment I got tenure. This may be the simplest explanation, since I don't feel like an Old Fart, which is the first sign.
But I think the evolution of my syllabi can be explained by a few simple principles:
1. It's a zero-sum game. Everything I put in the syllabus bumps something else.
2. This may be the only chance the students get to experience this material.
1 and 2 combine to make me really leery of bumping, say, Pearl, for mysticism (which I find tedious and can't abide, anyway). I think a student who studies mysticism will get a very interesting look into the culture of the Middle Ages. I think a student who studies Pearl will get a pretty good glimpse of medieval culture and will also have encountered (and possibly fallen in love with ) a textual artifact that he or she might remember some time in the future. And there are likely to be a lot more of the second type of student.
3. It's a lot easier to get students enthusiastic over battles, romances, dragons and intrigue than it is to get them excited about the Peasants' Revolt or the penitentials. I can channel that student excitement and use it to push them into additional hard work. If they don't have that excitement, I am the only out out in the rain pushing the bus, and we don't go nearly as far.
This is not to say that I don't do things that I think are innovative (I'll post my Chaucer syllabus and let you see for yourself how you can make assignments that build on one another in such a way as to give students mastery not only of the language, but of the research tools and the academic culture in which they encounter Chaucer). But my innovation comes, I think, mainly in the realm of class-to-class improvisations, moment-to-moment readings of the student engagement and the ability to talk when necessary and, at other times, shut up and let them roll with their ideas.
So far, so good. In my favorite class this year, Beowulf, my syllabus consisted of line numbers to be translated and discussed by a given day. That was it (though students did presentations on sub-topics of Beowulf studies. We are now on target to finish the poem on time, and my students completely kick ass at Old English right. In this case, less syllabus was more class.