The Backwards Syllabus

This semester I did not create a planned, hyper-managed “if it is Tuesday we will be doing this” sort of syllabus. And yes,as in the past I was worried that I might be making a mistake. The nagging voices returned…Would I be less of a teacher, less of a person if I didn’t have the whole semester mapped out down to the very last second?

One night while I was trying to sort this all out, I remembered that when I was a grad student at UT-Austin, I was lucky to be with a group of grad students who were really, genuinely interested in the art and the craft of language teaching. Yeah, sure, we were all paying our tuition by teaching 2 courses a year, but it was an amazing experience to be surrounded by colleagues who really cared about what they did in the classroom, even though everyone told them they didn’t have to.

We taught ourselves to plan for contingencies, have many plan B’s, be flexible…and above all to LISTEN to what was going on in the classroom and adjust accordingly. Those ideas have stayed with me lo these many, many years. I still teach that way, so maybe its no surprise that an air-tight, hermetically sealed syllabus won’t work for me. It might work for others, but not me.

It dawned on me that the syllabus exists, really, to serve two purposes: one to help the teacher articulate expectations, and two, to help students prepare for the journey ahead and know what is expected of them (and give them ample time to jump ship if they need to). Our departments would like them to be around for curricular reviews or to woo prospective students, but that’s not the essential purpose.

Learning a language, or learning anything for that matter, is about taking risks, taking chances, trying something new, failing, picking yourself up after failing, moving forward. And I believe that (calculated) risk taking should begin with participating in the planning of the course, and then continue as students articulate and work towards meeting their own goals in the class. (more on this soon)

A free for all? Uh no. As Peter Filene puts it in “The Joy of Teaching:”

The purpose of teaching is not to satisfy consumers’ wishes or to find the lowest common denominator. Because learning involves venturing beyond what one already knows and believes, an effective teacher takes students out of their “comfort zone.” He or she challenges them with unsettling ideas, sets high standards, demands introspection and hard work, all the while heeding how the students are responding.

As has been said here before, teaching and learning is not just dialogic. Its polylogic…many different conversations happening concurrently. Filene continues:

[Students] may learn from each other, or intimidate each other, but tacitly or explicitly, they play a role in their pedagogical relationship…they collaborate in a quest in which they are propelled by curiosity, study evidence, react and discuss and interrogate, and finally arrive at various understandings

(I like the use of the plural there…understandings…ah the joys of finding that there are many truths, not just one)

So rather than a syllabus, I presented this slideshow to my class on the first day. In one of the slides it mentions an activity. At that point I asked them to design for me a conversation class in which absolutely no one would improve as a conversationalist (with thanks to the amazing Nancy White for that great idea)


Since the first class we have used our blog to map out the class. Check out the apuntes/tarea page to see where we have been and what we do each day.

So when the semester is over, I will be able to tell you where we have been and how we got there. But until then, we are taking it one, full, interesting day at a time.

Series Navigation<< Reflections from the Chair Swing, Moving into the SummerLow hanging fruit >>

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

1 Comment

  1. The constantly-updating syllabus · March 7, 2011 Reply

    […] have written a bit on the idea of the Backward Syllabus on this site, and how I believe that a syllabus is something that evolves over the course of a […]

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: