A syllabus is a contract. It is a promise. It is an expression of the teacher’s pedagogy. And, in the wrong hands, in my hands, it can be an overly structured soul-sucking instrument of oppression.
How so? I give my students what they want. I tell them what to do. I tell them when to do it. I scan and post my lecture notes. My assignments have overviews. There are lists and lists of expectations. There are also helpful hints on how to succeed. I make available my grading rubrics. Points are broken down into various categories. And, for each category, I give my students a brief one sentence explanation of what it means to earn an A, B, C, D or F.
Research papers have formidable format guidelines. I dictate the font size and type (12, Times New Roman). I dictate the margins (1 inch all around), the line spacing (1.5), and even the placement of the page numbers (centered at the bottom of each page). I implore them not to justify. I give them an example of a title page to slavishly follow. I also give them access to “benchmark” papers written by previous students. “Do not”, I tell them, “deliver your paper in a plastic cover.” Just staple it. In the upper left hand corner, of course.
I do even more hand-holding in my Principles course. I take most of the questions on the exams from the problems at the end of each chapter. I tell them this. I even give them the answers to all the problems at the end of each chapter. Sometimes, instead of making them memorize and regurgitate formulas, I just give them to them. I put multiple choice problems and the exams; but, not too many. There is an objective standard. They either get it right or they do not. Hell, if I ask enough multiple choice questions, there is a machine that will do most the grading for me. They can get 100%. They can get a sticker on the inside cover of their blue book. They can show their sticker to their loved-ones. And, in turn, their loved can know with confidence that they excelled.
Over the years, it has taken hours of research and thoughtful reflection to design my syllabi and their accompanying overviews, expectations, helpful hints, and grading rubrics. I was proud of my pedagogy. “Only someone who really cared about his students would go to these lengths” I told myself. Indeed, I was so enamored with my pedagogy that there were times when I would lean back in my chair, kick my feet up on the office desk, and gaze lovingly at one of my grading rubrics like it was my Farrah Fawcett poster. “What a perfect expression of my pedagogy” I would think. Too bad it was a flawed pedagogy forged in fear and designed to maximize my control over students.
It was a pedagogy that diminished their responsibility, lowered their level of accountability, and extended their adolescence. It was a pedagogy whose student-produced output was graded, stored in a closet, and promptly disposed of in an environmentally friendly manner after the semester and a half waiting period came to an end. No one acted on their knowledge. No one acted on their effort. No one took a second look. No one was changed, well maybe them. It was a pedagogy that created distance between me and my students. Don’t bother me. Don’t email me. Don’t come to office hours. Look it up on line. It’s all on line. It was a pedagogy in which I rewarded students for showing up on time and raising their hands when they wanted to engage. I taught them to obey. I taught them to follow. I taught them to acquiesce to my relative expertise. I taught them how to integrate into the hive upon graduation.
It was a destructive pedagogy. It was a pedagogy in need of a revolution. This revolution has been fomenting since 2007. I call it Tribal Teaching. It is designed to give my students what they need and not what they want. What is it that they need? They need to learn how to fail. They need to learn how to fight their personal demons. They need to learn how to navigate this world from a place of agency and not passivity. They need to learn how to walk into the arena alone, get an ass-kicking and get back up. And, they need to learn these things today, right now in my presence.
Yes, they also need to know facts and figures and theories and models specific to my field. However, I am a teacher. I am more than an expert conveyor of information. I am a mentor. I am a coach. I am here to accelerate their maturation process. And, in order to accomplish that, my personal pedagogy needed to mature, deepen its voice, grow some chest hair, and say good-bye to Farrah.
Good bye, Farrah.
Shawn Humphrey, the Blue Collar Professor (@blucollarprof)
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