Yesterday in class I outlined my goals for the two-part syllabus design assignment I’ve given you. What I didn’t explain was where this assignment came from. There are a couple of origin stories here: in my own graduate courses I had a couple of professors who asked me to develop an undergraduate syllabus related to the topic of the course, and in my comprehensive PhD exams one of my options was to design a syllabus for my minor field and explain it. I found these assignments daunting and infinitely challenging – they put me in touch with what I didn’t know in a way that conventional research papers didn’t – but also fun and incredibly helpful. (I have never taught any of the syllabi I created, though I have looked back over them; the more important take-away had to do with getting a better sense of what is involved in course design, how difficult it is to make decisions about what to include and how to frame material, and how to make a topic cohere for an audience with even less expertise than me.)
The more immediate inspiration for this assignment, however, came from my admiration of the work of Cathy N. Davidson, who was at my graduate institution when I was there (though I didn’t work with her) and is now at the CUNY Graduate Center. She’s an early Americanist by training, but in recent years has devoted her energies to thinking radically and creatively about the 21st century classroom. Most importantly, she’s my Facebook friend, so a lot of her amazing classroom experiments pop up on my feed when I’m feeling relaxed and eager to let my own mind wander in radical, creative directions. I put up a post last fall announcing my plan to let students design the final weeks of this course. Cathy and many others commented on that thread, and helped me figure out how I wanted to put this assignment together. Cathy isn’t the only one who does this kind of thing; she is one of the only people who has made a point of talking and writing about doing it as often as she possibly can, and pitching assignments such as these as vital components in rethinking what graduate (or even undergraduate) education should be about. She’s been quite inspiring to me, and she might be to you as well. Below, then, is a link to her most recent blog post (with links to other relevant blog posts) detailing the course design assignment her own graduate students are undertaking this week – not altogether dissimilar to yours, though yours is on a smaller scale (I’m sorry or you’re welcome, depending on how you feel about all this). Enjoy.