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What’s a Syllabus?

posted: 1.21.15 by Barclay Barrios

Amazing how quickly the break goes, right?  Here at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) we’ve been back since January 5 (we start so early!) so I’ve been thinking about syllabi and wondering just what a syllabus is (or might be) (or could be) (or should be).

I’ve known some who consider the syllabus a contract and in fact implement some form of contract grading (à la Peter Elbow) and certainly here at FAU the syllabus is, in part, a bureaucratic instrument, filled with mandated statements to ensure compliance with various state and university policies.  But I think for me, a syllabus is something else, and I have been trying to figure out what that something else is.

Centrally, I view a syllabus is an intellectual project.  It’s my chance to imagine, project, and describe this “class” I have in my head (the one that’s perfect and thus never happens).  I mull over each element, consider how one flows to the next, tweak this and that.  In some ways, I frontload my intellectual labor given how much time I spend designing the syllabus.

Syllabi are also design projects for me, which is to say I use them as visual essays / arguments / statements about the class.  I spend a shocking amount of time just choosing the right font.  I also consider the layout, the typography, and images.  I want the design to say something about the class and its goals.

So I guess I would say that for me a syllabus is like a mini-essay.  I am laying out a line of thinking about the issues of the class, carefully organized through each week, and I am inviting students as my readers to follow that argument.

What exactly is a syllabus for you?

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Categories: Barclay Barrios, Teaching Advice
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