Course outlines: evil time-suck or crucial necessity?

Here we are in the middle of Week One at Queen Mary, and I’ve taught two of my three classes for the first time. In each, I’ve elected to follow the same broad lesson plan: introductions; a tour through the course (module) outline online; an exercise to introduce us to “what the course will be doing” in a direct but low-stakes way. In each, the middle of these three items – aka the most important, aka the most boring – has dominated. I didn’t mean for it to… it just ended up taking more time than I’d hoped. Of course: such it has been my whole teaching life.

I’m starting to wonder if this – introducing the course in detail on day one – is a Bad Thing. Sure, students need to know what’s coming up, and what we’ll be reading, and what the assignments will be, but everything is online now; surely we can read this information on our own time and come back next class with questions, right? Would it be better if I put stuff up on the screen, or handed things out, said “please read this later and come prepared with three questions for the start of next lesson,” then moved on to something more engaging? There is a school of thought that advocates for this less-is-more-inspiring approach, but does it work on the ground?

I’d love to hear from others on this matter. ESPECIALLY if you’re a student right now, and definitely if you’re in one of my classes this semester, please weigh in with thoughts – pros, cons, alternatives, you name it. Do we need the course ground plan in detail in lesson one, or can we do it better, and more efficiently, on our own – with the caveat, of course, that there’s always room in lesson two for questions? I’ve got one more first class to convene this week, on Friday; I’ll change up the plan if you convince me it’s worth trying something different for real.

Hit “comment” now!


This entry was posted in Beginnings and endings and tagged by Kim Solga. Bookmark the permalink.

About Kim Solga

I am a university professor currently based in Hamilton, Ontario. I teach theatre and performance studies at Western University; previously, I was Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. On Wordpress, my teaching blog is The Activist Classroom; I'm also a regular contributor to the popular blog, Fit is a Feminist Issue.

5 thoughts on “Course outlines: evil time-suck or crucial necessity?

  1. In Canada, as you no doubt recall, course outlines are increasingly recognized before the law as contracts, and students are testing any deviations from them in court. Perhaps that is also developing in the UK and the US? I’ve come to regard the Syllabus Show as a legal necessity, active pedagogy notwithstanding.

    I’m an active user of our Learning Management System, and I always post the course outline to each course page. I assign the reading of the course outline as required reading, and ask students to confirm in writing that they’ve read it. That way, the responsibility is mutual, and the distribution of power between us is acknowledged: they hold me accountable, but I return the favour.

    Beyond the doing the legals, for me it’s a performative ritual that establishes the boundaries of the work we will share. But it is tough to make it in any way enjoyable!

  2. Thanks for this, Simon – I think I’m largely with you, ethos-wise. There’s less litigation over here, and less of a sense of the syllabus as legality, but of course it still is a legally binding document, and probably framing it as such during the “syllabus show” (and maybe building the show around that somehow? Hmmm….) is a good idea.

    As I’ve been thinking about this in the last day or so, I’ve started to wonder if – pace your “required reading” thing – perhaps doing some “active” exercises *around* the syllabus document isn’t a good idea on day one. Not yet sure what those might look like, but I’m batting this idea around for Friday.

    Sarah, Michelle, and Christine – if you’re reading, what do you think?

  3. This is an interesting one. I think it would be great to get first-hand student responses to this question after they’ve spent a few weeks on the course. In my experience, the danger with giving any group a document that they are asked to read after the session is that many people will just not get around to doing it. In the last few years I have ended up being asked by students some weeks into the term about things clearly stated in the course pack which can prove very infuriating.

      • In Canada and the US, faculty have been told repeatedly for the last few years that syllabi are indeed legally binding on all parties. Certainly, they’ve been used by students’ lawyers in appeals (though how successfully I honestly don’t know). Is this legality really so hard and fast? Michael McKinnie and I had a brief conversation about this a couple of weeks ago; he was skeptical, to put it mildly!

        Other Canadian/US colleagues: what do we *actually* know on this score (as opposed to what we’ve been told in department meetings and in university emails)?

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