Thoughts on the Perfect Syllabus

I return to teaching in the Fall after a year’s absence (I last taught Summer 2007). It has been, I am glad to say, a productive year. Dissertation done. Job in hand. Ideas ever-percolating. And I am itching to get back into the give and take of the classroom.

I like teaching. Actually, I might even love teaching. (Qualifed because of the “l” word, not the “t” one.)

To give a short preview of the process. Book orders are typically due in the preceding semester, which means I do a pre-read. When I teach poetry, this means sifting through/reading through multiple anthologies and poetry books, the difficult task of deciding whether or how many full-length collections to teach. Love them. Don’t do enough of them. Yet. Deciding on the novels—I do a 70/30, 70% I’ve read previously and maybe taught, the rest I either have not read (with contemporary work) or, more likely, with a historical field, have not taught.

Having decided, and sent in the order (which I have), comes the “first” read. The first read works best over summer. Right now I’m going through books I ordered. I have a broad theme for the Fall, but I want to see what I can isolate in each individual work. This is not “the point” I want students to get, but the point of departure. Read done, themes and aesthetic points semi-identified. Summer mostly done.

Then semester, where I read the work once again to prepare for class. Depending on what I’m teaching, the reading differs. If a poem, then multiple reads, 3-5 times at least. And not quick skims. If an essay, at least 2 reads (I’m teaching “The Intentional Fallacy” and have started my third detailed read.) If a section of a novel, usually one close read—if a short section, maybe 2. This reading of a primary text does not account, of course, for reading secondary texts of history, general criticism, and specific secondary criticism (so, reading on Harlem Renaissance history, gender in the HR, and specific essays on Claude McKay’s “Harlem Dancer,” for instance). (This is one response to the question, but what do professors do?)

I get into trouble with the 70/30 thing, as do all instructors. I mean, surely, one has to teach all of Charles Chesnutt and Pauline Hopkins, right? One can’t really “get” Claude McKay without all the novels, the poetry, the essays, and the autobiographies, right? It’s surely a crime to teach Thiong’o without including all his early work, most of his middle work, and all his later work, right? Nella Larsen, Everything. Zora Neale Hurston, everything. (There’s a theme here: I do African and Afro-diasporic work.)

As for so-called theory: early Foucault without late Foucault is a crime, as is early Freud without late Freud, early Fanon without late Fanon, you get the theme.

In many ways, of course, a syllabus is a kind of (auto)biography. One wants to tell a kind of story of one’s development, no matter how reconstructed. And it’s important to note here that the story is always being re-told. In my case, I would have to start with feminism, move through Afro-Am studies, get to LGBT studies, jump to queer studies, hop on to postcolonialism. But this seems too much like a mishmash—ideas change, perspectives develop, one discovers, in graduate school, what one had missed in undergrad—the encounter with Hegel and Lacan, Copjec and Rose, an engagement with post-Marxist thought, a new introduction to Kenneth Burke, a renewed love for some (perhaps never abandoned) New Critical methods, in my case, a more prolonged encounter with sexology and Anthropology, African Studies, and black diaspora studies, always the sense that one’s field is in a very exciting state of flux, and one keeps constructing contingent anchors while swimming in the stream.

There has been no linear line in my thought, though my journey through literature has been fairly traditional—“Wayfarer” through Language poetry. Some of this, of course, has to do with how schools and departments are organized. Much of it I owe to a solid liberal arts background.

So, the perfect syllabus.

One wants to balance coverage with representation, to give a sense of aesthetic range and diversity, but also to give an idea of literary and cultural history. One wants to assign the books that “changed” one’s life, or at least one’s mind. One wants to give students what Kenneth Burke termed “equipment for living.”

One wants to keep a sense of perspective: this, for some if not most students, will be one class among many others, and many times, not even the most important or interesting class.

One, of course, also has to account for institutional requirements: how does this class enable future classes, not only in your discipline or field, but also in other classes or fields. I cannot overestimate, for instance, how much my classes in the Renaissance have shaped my thinking about the black diaspora. Nor can I discount how a very pleasurable semester of going over select poems line by line, word by word, enabled me to read difficult, complex thinkers across multiple fields, though most science still eludes me. And I’m yet to measure how classes in history and anthropology have shaped my approaches to literature.

Then, of course, just day-to-day things: does the class have a compelling narrative, a story of how ideas work or themes develop. Does it balance the “hard” really hard stuff (I’ll be teaching about lynching, for instance) with the pleasurable (Their Eyes were Watching God)? Does it offer students familiar narratives (agency, empowerment) alongside difficult ones (complicity)? Does it let students experience themselves learning (and this, I have to say, is really difficult)? But does it also give them “something to grow on?” Does it inspire intellectual curiosity? (And, I have to note, this happens in all sorts of unexpected ways. For instance, I read a lot of race and sexuality-based theory when taking a-theoretical classes, because I wanted a different kind of narrative).

Others, I am sure, have much more elaborate ways to discuss how they construct their classes.

All this, and more, given about 8 novels, maybe 10 poems, about 4-6 essays, and about 11 weeks of teaching. Semester is 15 weeks, but have to account for the book that might be cut because of time, working on papers and assignments, grading, tweaking, re-tweaking, student presentations. You get the point.

Each “perfect” syllabus always begins, for me, with everything I would want to teach. In an African Fiction class, for instance, student-run magazines and Onitsha market publications (two concurrent, very interesting forms) to Kwani? and Chimurenga to blogs. One winnows and cuts and winnows some more.

One develops different classes: African Magazines; Short African Fiction; Modern African Fiction; Contemporary African Fiction; East African Fiction; Francophone Fiction; African Poetry; South African Poetry. You get the gist. Of course, part of the pleasure of this process is that one gets to study, in some depth, a work one might not have encountered before. Juxtaposing certain works provides startling moments of insights.

Of course, one can never plan for the narrative that develops in the class, especially if one teaches a discussion-based class. And I always teach discussion-based classes. One cannot anticipate the deeply philosophical student who, one day, mentions some concept you’ve never heard of, but one that opens up new vistas; one cannot anticipate the engineering majors who, in all my classes, transform literary methodology, forging, unwittingly, new inter-disciplinary methods of reading; one cannot anticipate the student who has read everything about astronomy and astrology and does incredible things with Donne. One cannot anticipate the student who works in a grocery store and does wonderful things to Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California.” One cannot anticipate what happens when you bring all these different individuals and histories and experiences into a room and begin talking.

And, I have to say, this moment of talking to and with each other is one of the main reasons I teach. I’m happy when students learn and absorb and use what I teach. I’m glad when they find it useful or enlightening or both.

I’m thrilled when they learn that they can and do produce knowledge.

And, ultimately, this is my aim in all my classes. For me, the perfect syllabus gets students to the point where they are both capable of and excited about their ability to produce knowledge.

One thought on “Thoughts on the Perfect Syllabus

    On both the done diss and the job in hand!
    I missed this post before.

    I’m in the process of putting my own syllabus together so i’ll be re-reading this post often for inspiration.
    I too love teaching but got put through the ringer this last semester by three impossible students who ruined the whole semester for me.

    thanks for the inspiration and re-invigoration

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