The Syllabus as a Literary Genre: or, More Delusions of a Full-Time Professor

[the Old Science Hall at ECU--a building I never teach in!]
I’m sitting at my desk writing syllabi for next semester.  Oddly, I enjoy doing this almost as much as I enjoy writing a novel or an academic essay...okay, often more than writing an academic essay.  And yet nothing gives me a worse case of writer’s block, even though I’ve written dozens of syllabi in my 13 years of teaching college and rarely teach a class that’s completely new (well, except for this semester, hence my frustration!).  But really, what’s the big deal?  It’s a syllabus.  You slap down a few rules and procedures, list due dates and grade allocations, and call it a day.  After all, that's about all students remember of it—if indeed they look at the document at all.  To be honest, a syllabus is less for the student than for the professor, since it is his/her first attempt to define what the class is (or isn’t).  And this is the great paradox of writing a syllabus: how can you write about a class that doesn’t even exist yet?  It's just a room number and a set of dates, nothing more!  You don’t know the students, you can’t predict their ability, interest level, or average attendance.  The morale of the classroom is an abstraction at this point, as is the rapport.  “The class” is created in the first two weeks, and though it can change—go from good to bad, or bad to good—those first two weeks determine what you can and can’t do in the class, how students see you, and what kind of learning will take place in the class.   

For example, if you start our too nice and easy, doing loosey-goosey group work for the first week without any real reading or homework, nothing will change the students’ perception of you as a blow-off professor.  Work will not get done; assignments will not be read; and endless e-mails will hound you about dead grandmothers and emergency trips out of town.   As a greenhorn professor, I feared the first weeks, since I didn’t really know how to start a class.  So I took the easy way out by not really starting at all.  I would do warm-up exercises, postponing the readings until we all got to know one another.  Well, they got to know me really fast—and blew off everything I tried to do by week 2 or 3.  I was one of those professors.  Nice, really chill, but a total push over.  I spent the entire semester rolling the boulder of student perception back up the hill of rigor and accomplishment—only to have it flatten me halfway up.  So then I switched tactics and started doing real work on the very first day; hello, nice to meet you, now start writing about this—or tell me everything you know about that—or let’s take a tour of one thousand years of literature in 40 minutes, okay?  You could see panic in some of the students’ faces, as they were clearly not prepared to do anything, and that, too, set the tone of the class.  They didn’t trust me, were terrified to speak or contribute to the class, and in general, felt that I was one of those professors—the kind that doesn't care about you, who won't listen to your problems, who doesn't care if you learn or not. 

Obviously these are both extreme examples and many classes were a mixture of both responses—with most ending up generally upbeat.  Yet those first classes remain crucial, and the syllabus is the plan of attack: it tells me how I plan to approach the entire semester before I learn a single name or regret a single assignment.  In a way, the syllabus is a kind of code: it forces me to swear to a set of values that I intend to live and die by for the entire semester.  If I say we’re going to write a 20 page research paper, then it forces me to teach to the assignment; the entire class has to progress toward its inevitable climax, and every assignment I write and every class I teach has to contain that goal as a kind of leitmotif.  However, if I decide not to scale Everest this semester, then I can’t suddenly decide to mount an assault mid-semester; no, I have to set my gaze on smaller peaks, or perhaps even more bucolic strolls in a neighboring valley.  The freedom of not knowing what the class will bring is the true power of writing the syllabus.  It is an act of authorship, much like a book, poem, play, or short story; it is fictional (since the class doesn’t exist yet) and it contains a plot, themes, rising action, characters at this point, more the readings in class than the students) and an ending.  You couldn't really do this if you knew the class too well, since you would think, “ah, these 5 students never even bring a book to class,” or “ah, I should have known X and Y would be in the class, and they already know this—I shouldn’t repeat it.”  This is all very important and pragmatic, but such qualities are too earthbound to create a living, organic class.  Doing so creates mere a syllabus, a set of rules and grade attributions.  For this very reason I despise all the required statements universities typically require which belies the literary worth of a syllabus.  Not even Jane Austen could make the Writing Across the Curriculum statement worthy of music or meaning—without a touch of satire, that is. 

Years ago, when I was still new at ECU, a professor proudly confided to me that he no longer wrote syllabi.  He attributed it to something newbie professors did when they didn’t know how to break the rules, when they still needed training wheels. “I just go in and teach,” he said, or something like it. “But where’s the fun in that?” I thought to myself.  That would be like teaching a class without books (he did that, too!), or not bothering to learn the students’ names, or having an entire class on-line (strongly recommended by the university!).  Because it is fun to write, to imagine a class as a literary creation before it becomes a physical thing, subject to all the doubt, confusion, frustration, and even success that will inevitably follow.  When you’re sitting at your keyboard, typing in course descriptions, reading dates, and even attendance policies, you’re writing literature.  Every syllabus you were given as an undergraduate dances through your head, as you mentally cut and paste, or do your own variations on an academic theme.  I even keep some faded syllabi from decades past less for their organizational brilliance than for their heroic prose.  Honestly, some course descriptions are sheer poetry, and inspire me to teach an entire class based on these pre-semester ambitions.  I laboriously write and re-write my own course description and endlessly tinker with the course calendar as if it were the table of contents to a Victorian novel (isn’t it?).  Every word I write brings me closer to rediscovering my love of teaching, since the syllabus, like walking into a classroom, is a performance.  It’s a way of putting on the mask—or trying on several masks—and thinking, what kind of performance should this class be?  It is Shakespeare or Moliere—or Beckett?   The students will never be aware of this performance (and if they are, I’ve failed miserably), but without the lines and greasepaint, it will be all too improvisatory.  Or better yet, there can be no improvisation without this character study.  It is the basis for acting itself, for the fruitful discussions and writings that follow. 

Every semester I tell myself not to make such a production of it all—no one cares, they won’t even read it, get on with your life.  And yet, this is my life, not just as a professor but as a writer. It’s a work of art, however simple and mundane, and one that, if done correctly, can inspire a new performance, a new approach to well-worn books and material.  It’s also the one chance I have to see a class before it becomes just another class, with students who don’t listen (or even those that do), with papers to grade and e-mails to respond to.  As Basil Fawlty used to say (on Fawlty Towers), “this hotel would run completely fine without all the bloody guests” (a poor paraphrase).  Now I don’t mean to say I don’t want students in the classroom—far from it!—but ironically, the only way to truly envision a class is without the students.  The class needs to start as a question, or a series of questions, and a few tentative attempts to answer them.  The real questions and answers only come with the professor and students meeting together over the course of many long weeks of discussion.  But without that first literary act—the writing of the dreaded syllabus—the conversations may not even take place.  It all starts with the words, with the fiction that a class can actually be more than a grade or series of answers on a test.  You truly have to believe that, even if it’s just for a few hours (or as long as it takes you to write the syllabus), since it’s the one time that no one will contradict you or ask, “what does this have to do with my major?”  For those wonderful—and stressful—hours spent pounding out the syllabus, you are the greatest writer and teacher on earth.  And isn’t that a nice way to start the semester?