Stretching the syllabus

You’ve put long hours into crafting your syllabus. You’ve done research—both within your discipline and in pedagogy. You’ve revised in light of past experience. Finally, days or minutes before class begins, the syllabus is ready. It’s perfect.

Until a news event suddenly shows its imperfection two weeks into the semester. What do you do? Do you take the time to make the course speak to it, or do you stick with the original, well-crafted plan?

I am facing this choice in one of my classes right now, as media attention to an issue relevant to the course has grown rapidly since the semester began. I have identified a long investigative news article that students could analyze with the analytical tools they are learning in the next few weeks.

The upside? It would show students that ancient ideas mattered to contemporary life! And what a great way to get my students to sharpen their information skills! Best of all, there could be small-group work! And worksheets!

But all of these benefits have a cost, too.

If I assign the article, it adds about 25% to the amount of reading for the week, and without much warning. Not only may students resent this, they may simply not do it. Then there’s the time consideration. Things always take longer to work through in class than I imagine they will when I’m drafting a syllabus. How much longer could it take to teach the article, too? What will I have to sacrifice later in the semester?

How far should a syllabus stretch in order to attain learning goals that emerge in the middle of the semester?

This question is especially acute in technical and professional fields. Some of you teach in areas where the content of your courses is more rigidly determined by the demands of outside accrediting agencies. In that case, it can seem like professional responsibility demands strict adherence to the document you distributed on the first day.

But engineering professor Daniel Vallero thinks that with the right kind of preparation, a course can be ready for when a “teachable moment” spontaneously  appears. For engineering educators, the September 11, 2001, attacks were just such a moment. So many urgent questions awaited an answer: How and why had the structures collapsed? What were the near- and long-term dangers to air quality in Lower Manhattan? Did the terrorists enlist engineers to help them design their attacks?

The disaster was an opportunity for engineering students to approach their material in a new way and perhaps even help educate the public about what was happening.

But were course syllabi standing in the way?

Vallero identifies three general types of teaching, considered in moral terms. A teleological approach to the syllabus emphasizes goals identified ahead of time, recognizing that trial and error will be the means to attaining them. A deontological approach emphasizes commitment to professional duty: the syllabus reflects the carrying out of that duty, and deviation from it is irresponsible. Finally, a relational approach sees students, faculty, syllabi, and the world in relation to each other, with all agents trying to find their way within this matrix. To Vallero, the relational approach sees every moment as teachable.

Vallero found through a questionnaire given to engineering students that the Sept. 11 attacks were often featured in classes in the Fall 2001 semester, but were not studied as much in subsequent semesters. Engineering faculty seem to have responded to this teachable moment initially, but they did not bring it back into courses after that traumatic semester. Did they return to their teleological or deontological approaches? Vallero found that students wanted to give more attention to Sept. 11, even if it did not obviously connect to the syllabus or course goals.

Vallero concludes the article with suggestions for how to build syllabi that allow for spontaneous, relational elements like these teachable moments. These suggestions include requiring students to read about current events and expect them to bring them into class discussion as warranted. He also recommends journaling (yes, even in engineering), an approach that can be applied across disciplines. Students in a sports medicine class might keep a journal of injuries that make headlines in a given sports season.

Finally, Vallero suggests that, when the most dramatic or horrifying teachable moments arrive, faculty be open to turning the entire course’s focus onto the event. This requires heroic levels of flexibility, but paradoxically, thorough planning of course objectives and methods might be the best way to make it happen.

How do you respond to “teachable moments” that confront you during a semester? How do you balance preparation, the syllabus plan, and spontaneity?

Reference: Vallero, Daniel A. 2003. “Teachable Moments and the Tyranny of the Syllabus: September 11 Case.” Journal Of Professional Issues In Engineering Education & Practice 129, no. 2: 100.

Photo by stock.xchng user knife18 / Creative Commons licensed.


One response to “Stretching the syllabus

  1. It seems to me that what Vallero calls the teleological approach could complement the relational approach, since the former is already open to trial and error in attaining its goals. And the point of talking about some relevant news story, one you hadn’t planned for, isn’t to change goals; it’s to serve the ends you had imagined for the class to begin with–just in a way, and using materials, you hadn’t foreseen. The relational model surely has to posit some goals or objectives to direct the spontaneity of the classroom experience (which is why talking about an athlete’s torn ACL might be worthwhile in a sports medicine class, but not so much talking about his or her off-the-field dating life).