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The Art of Designing a Syllabus

posted: 10.18.12 by Andrea Lunsford

I’ve been working on the syllabus for a course I’ll teach in the winter.  Writing 2.0: The Art of the Digital Essay will begin with a review of the history of the English essay, focusing on changes to the genre brought on by changes in technologies.  For most of the term, though, we will be exploring examples of a number of what I think of as “animated” essays (by composers like Diana Slattery and Shelley Jackson) and designing and writing digital essays of our own.  I’ve been looking at examples of digital essays on the Web and imagining what I will write my own digital essay on.  And, of course, I’m trying to set the whole course out in a ten-week syllabus.

I’ve been making up syllabi for over four decades, but I seldom stop to think about this process unless I am working with graduate students new to teaching.  Then I give them a few general tips (begin with the assignment due dates and then work backwards from those so that you can articulate what the students need to do leading up to each assignment) before asking them to create a very rough draft.  Then we work backwards, week by week to the beginning of term, asking, “What do students need to do to get the most out of this class and to complete the assignments successfully”?  Some of my colleagues—call them the bare minimalists—hardly provide a syllabus at all:  they generally just list ten weeks and the key readings for each week.  That’s it. At the other extreme are colleagues whose syllabi are so detailed (often ten pages or longer) that they can overwhelm the students.  I fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.  For every syllabus I design, I begin with a brief description of the course and succinct list of goals, like this example from Writing 2.0.

Course Description: From its first incarnations, the essay has welcomed experimentation, embraced technological change, and encouraged new styles of writing.   Students in this course will begin by studying early experiments with the essay form (by Michel de Montaigne and William Hazlitt) before studying its contemporary incarnations (by composers like Diana Slattery and Shelley Jackson).  We will particularly focus on how the digital-age allows writers to compose using color, images, sound, video, hyperlinks, and other forms of multimedia to achieve their purposes and effects.  To this end, students will explore examples of a number of what we might call “animated” essays as they work to compose one of their own.  No special experience needed, just curiosity and a willingness to experiment.

Course Goals:  to help students develop their own digital-writing voices and personae; to develop an understanding of the rich tradition of experimental essay-writing; and to think critically about new platforms of writing in the digital age

The other sections of my syllabus include Course Texts (for this course they will be primarily online); Course Assignments; Course Support (information on the Writing Center, libraries, and other sources on campus and online); and Course Schedule (for each date, I will list class activities, class readings, and due dates).  So maybe four pages total.  I will offer a separate bibliography for the course and develop slightly more developed assignment sheets for each major assignment, including the criteria I will use in evaluating student work.  For me, this will be the most difficult part of developing this new course syllabus:  how will I evaluate the digital essays students will produce in the class?  There’s been some good discussion about evaluating multimodal and multimedia texts on the WPA listserv in the last few months, so I know I will draw on that. And I will certainly ask the students to work with me on developing evaluative criteria.  But I would love some help with this part of my syllabus.  So anyone out there who is teaching and evaluating these kinds of texts – please send me some ideas!




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