Who Creates the Course Syllabus?


I recently completed teaching 21st Century American Fiction, a variation on the many Introduction to Fiction courses that I have taught. As I told my students on the first day, I could teach the course 20 times and use a different reading list each time. The choices that I made were governed by a number of considerations: a homage to a celebrate writer whose career is at its end (Philip Roth’s Nemesis ), a tribute to the most recent Nobel Prize for Literature winner (Alice Munro’s Dear Life), a response to the Iraq war which has spanned most of the new century (Phil Klay’s National Book Award Winner Redeployment), a recognition new generation of great short story writers (George Saunder’s The 10th of December), and an acknowledgment of hybrid genres (Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir Fun Home).

I left one hole in the syllabus and invited students to fill it with a choice of their own. I offered them a number of possibilities. Since there were a number of Latino/a students on the roster, I listed Christina Hernandez’s The Book of Unknown Americans by Christina Henriquez and Junot Diaz’s This is How You Lose Her. Not surprisingly, students had not heard of any of the items on the “possibilities” list or any of the works that I had already chosen. I urged them to do some background reading, especially about  works not on my list, and lobby their classmates for their selection.

The process stalled out a bit, and I was about ready to exercise professor authority, until I discovered in their short information sheets that The Fault in Our Stars by John Green was listed on five of the eighteen, and of these five, three had seen the movie. I added the very popular Young Adult novel to the list and, in truth, hoped that they might select something else. And then I came upon two reviews of the novel, both of which made the case that the Young Adult Novel, and this one in particular, should not be dismissed quite so easily. Laura Miller, writing in Salon, even made the case that this work was a sophisticated narrative that, among its many virtues, raised interesting questions about the benefits of reading and on the relationships between readers and writers. Nothing like a work with meta-fictional qualities to appeal to the teacher concerned about the book’s “teachability.”

I was sold and with deliberate understatement told my students that, “I would not be disappointed if John Green’s novel were the choice.” And it became the choice and the source for seven productive hours of classroom discussion. Not exactly coming up from the grassroots but close.

But my ambition here is not to promote the book (though I do recommend it) but rather to think about inviting students into the making of the syllabus in a more substantive way. Granted it’s easier to do when there is not a fixed body of disciplinary information and licensing boards that measure students’ mastery of that information. But even introductory courses like General Psychology that are driven by the textbook’s table of contents can invite students into the process of choosing which chapters/topics will be covered. I am aware of one instructor who does this routinely. Most humanities courses, especially ones using primary sources, are ready made for such an approach.

If I could magically bend the time divisions that partially determine course content and design, I would like to offer a 6- hour literature course across two semesters, assuming that the same students would enroll in both sessions. The first semester would be devoted to syllabus creation; the second would put the syllabus into action. The first semester would be driven by these questions: what should a challenging good course in ________ contain, how should material be organized, what kind of classroom activities should there be, and what measurements of achievement should be used? Such a question dictates the use of outside-of-class individual and small group investigations, class sessions devoted to progress reports and consultations with the instructor, and short readings on literature pedagogy introduced at strategic times. In short everything that most prefabricated courses are not.

It would be messy and uncomfortable for students; they are so used to being given a fully prepared meal and not asked to gather the ingredients and prepare the dishes. I’m almost tempted to say that the students would be able to work through the end-product syllabus on their own. You know, the value is in the journey not the destination. But I also think that students would welcome the opportunity for a communal meal, for the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labors, and to continue expanding on the sense of agency/empowerment that is developed in the first course.  If putting together an entire syllabus is too daunting, then an equal collaboration between students and teacher might work. For each work selected by students, the teacher might select a companion piece. They choose Toni Morrison; I pick James Baldwin. They pick The Things They Carried; I match it with Slaughterhouse Five.

If one of the goals of general education courses is to convey a sense of the discipline, this course will enable students to gain this sense. Students would learn that humanities courses are fluid rather than fixed and what goes into the making of a course is the result of conversations and arguments among professor-pedagogs, the rise and fall of literary reputations, and the judgments of gatekeepers in the reviewing and publishing industries, and a fair amount of teacher choice. It will pull back the veil on seemingly authoritative teachers to reveal how choices are made.

Would this process of syllabus creation result the reading list described above. I sure hope not.



About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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