Thursday, October 27, 2011

Stuck with a syllabus

I've come to the conclusion that, for the long haul, I will have to severely re-tool the syllabus I've been using this semester.  For a number of reasons, it doesn't always work as effectively as I hoped it might, and in a few ways it actually seems to be counter-productive.  I'm not going to be super-negative and say that this is due to the intellectual inadequacy of my students — because that's genuinely not true.  I will, however, lay the blame for this largely at the feet of the great state of _______, which has apparently been bent on robbing its public school students of all critical thinking skills and allowing their nascent intellectual muscles to atrophy.  One of my students, whilst explaining to me why zi had found the course curriculum challenging, clued me in to the fact that the state educational structure encourages high school students to get their 'hard' courses out of the way during 9th and 10th grades, and then they do little (memorable) for the latter two years of high school other than study for standardized exams.  Historiann has sounded off on this topic before, and she's got lots more statistics and fleshed-out ideas about this than have I, so I'll let you play with those links and cede my time to her.  I gotta say, though, that I was stunned to hear from the horse's mouth just how little serious education high school students got, and how much time was devoted to studying for tests that literally would not help them after they matriculated to college.

Anyway, my point is that I think there are some structural problems with my syllabus, given the level of student preparation that I can expect to encounter.*  In the long run, this won't be a really big deal to fix: give me a few weeks of downtime with a few textbooks and readers, and I'll be able to put together something more suitable that will more easily reach the students "where they are" while still challenging them to go further.  But in the short run, I am – as are my students – stuck with the syllabus more or less as it currently exists.  I'm teaching four courses at a time for the entire academic year.  I'm firing with all cylinders on the job market.  I'm trying to write my first book.  I simply don't have time to cook up a new syllabus and its accompanying entirely new slate of lectures.  Practically speaking, I'm unable to divorce myself from my current syllabus, except perhaps to swap out a few readings where they proved seriously unworkable.

I'd ask for advice here, if I thought there were any to give.  All I can see is that I must do a little triage work on the parts of the syllabus that clearly do more harm than good, and then do what I can to present the rest of the syllabus in a more sugar-coated fashion.  Largely, this means accepting that diligent first-year students are going to try their best to do the reading, but will not understand it to any significant degree.  Therefore, I need to walk them through the meaning of each reading, instead of assuming that they'll get at least the gist if they try.  It also means that, next time around, I need to assume that no one has even taught them the basics of how one does college, and that as a result, I'll have to demonstrate to them in the early weeks how one engages with a piece of academic writing.  That in and of itself will eat up some time in the semester, giving me less time to deal with readings and concepts — but, then again, maybe that's not the worst outcome anyway.

Meanwhile, I'm exhausted from spending way too much time this evening parsing out the meaning of tomorrow's reading for students who have no idea how to pull ideas out of a relatively simple text.**  (Relatively simple = written for perhaps a 10th-grade reading level, and assuming little if any prior knowledge of the subject.)

* And, in the case of a few readings, sometimes I just blew it, and a particular piece wouldn't really register for students no matter what university they're at or how much college prep they've experienced.
** And yeah, I'm the first one to point out that a few of my top performers actually do get this stuff, and are stimulated by it.  But I don't want to face my judgment someday before the Flying Spaghetti Monster and have to explain why I directed my courses to the top 5% of the enrollment, and let the rest stumble around in confusion.

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