Friday, December 26, 2008


I looked up 'syllabus' in the Oxford Reference Online and the definitions offered were interesting in light of my current planning:

1. the subjects in a course of study or teaching: there isn't time to cover the syllabus | the history syllabus.

2. (in the Roman Catholic Church) a summary of points decided by papal decree regarding heretical doctrines or practices.
- ORIGIN mid 17th cent. (in the sense 'concise table of headings of a discourse'): modern Latin, originally a misreading of Latin sittybas, accusative plural of sittyba, from Greek sittuba 'title slip, label'.

I love these two definitions. The first one is curious not for the definition, but for the example - "there isn't enough time." I often have this problem. I develop an ambitious, but I think not totally unreasonable plan for the semester and - voila - we have weather closures, or I get sick, or the group gets exhausted, so I have to dramatically modify or chuck out chunks of my syllabus. And there is the worry side - what if I don't plan enough and we spend the last two weeks staring at each other??

This semester my goal for my revised course is to just choose the interesting readings and leave gaps for development - class discussion, in-class projects, whatever. I am working on finding to the right amount of work - interesting, serious, fun, educationally useful.

For my new course, rather than planning everything out as a tightly organized puzzle from which no pieces can be removed, etc (I have been known to do this), my goal is to be comfortable with a little more openness and a little less planning. But my real innovation (for my teaching anyway), is to be open about this. I am going to say to the students, 'hey I haven't taught this before, I'm not sure where we're going with this, but let's try it and see what happens.' I will have a syllabus and a plan, just not one that is set in stone. I don't want to say at the end of the semester, "there isn't time to cover the syllabus."

The second definition is also fun: "a summary of points decided by papal decree regarding heretical doctrines or practices." Right. So a syllabus is a summary of ideas and practices that fall outside the range of the acceptable for a powerful institution. Hmm. Ok, syllabus it is. Should be fun. Of course, I would like to avoid the doctrinaire quality implied by this. Taking this more seriously, I tend to teach a version of art history that is politically interested, so I like students to think outside about what is and isn't heretical, whatever institutions we are investigating.

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