We are back at it with a vengeance: classes resumed at universities across Canada just over a week ago. And we all know what that means:
Far and wide, professors were performing The Syllabus Show.
You know, The Syllabus Show! It’s where we hand the course outline* to our incoming students in the first class of the term, and then proceed to do one of three things:
- Ignore the syllabus altogether – insisting students go home and read it with a magnifying glass, committing all the important dates to their diaries and all the rules and regs to memory – and jump right into The Course;
- Take the class through each section/sentence/carefully-crafted phrase with punishing focus, boring all living creatures in the classroom to near-death in the process;
- Speak to only the most important information (assignments; schedule; textbook list) using some cheeky technique designed to make The Syllabus Show just a bit less tedious.
I’ve never done #1 – I just cannot stomach Course Content Proper on day one. (I live in denial.) I’ve done #2, specifically early in my career, when I knew no better – and I nearly put myself to sleep, never mind the students. Number 3 was my stalwart for ages; I replaced “Kim Reads The Syllabus To You” with “Kim Offers Her Top Ten Tips for Getting an A” until I realised I was using that basically as a cover for reading the syllabus to them.
In the last few years I’ve gotten a bit more creative; my favourite Alt Syllabus Show, until this September, featured me dividing up the outline and asking pairs or trios of students to explain it back to the class, with the most important information highlighted. This technique allowed me to give in to the inevitable – whatever I’m doing at the front, on the first day nervous students are reading their damn syllabus, of course they are! – while also modelling the kind of active learning students could expect in the weeks ahead. As a bonus, it allowed me to get a fast read on what kinds of readers the students were: if they couldn’t pick up the key bits in the syllabus, I knew to be prepared when we started in on Henrik Ibsen (dour Norwegian playwriting hero) or Michel de Certeau (French wanderer-philosopher).
Then, this year, in the week before school started I got a tremendous idea from my friend Charlotte Canning, a theatre historian at UT Austin. Via Facebook, she revealed that she had gotten the students in her undergrad course to perform the syllabus for one another.
As in: they made the syllabus into a script and turned it, fast and furiously, into a piece of improv theatre.
Think about it: The Syllabus Show is, already, a “show” of sorts – just a genuinely important and yet utterly boring one. Why not give in to the subtext and put it, literally, on its feet?
I sent Charlotte an email query asking for the basics; she sent me back the simple Powerpoint slides she’d created for the first day.
The logistics were easy. First, divide the syllabus into small chunks or “sides” (this term comes from Shakespeare’s era; it means the individual scripts actors received, with just their cues and lines on them); I opted for about 1/2 page per side. In class, divide the group quickly into teams of 3-4 and give each team their “side” separately from the syllabus proper (which, obviously, they also need). Ask them to work quickly: start by introducing themselves, then read the side; decide what information is most important and needs to be communicated, and then figure out a scenario to stage it. Brevity is the soul, here: given the constraints of a first class and the fact that, to be fun, this task has to keep moving, I gave each team only 8 minutes to talk and devise, and 2 minutes to perform.
I opened the class with five minutes of basic but key information (I’m Kim; this is Theatre Studies 2202; are we all in the right place? Etc.), then gave them their course outlines and told them they were to tuck them away in favour of what I was giving them next. I said we were going to perform the syllabus; after we all acknowledged how absurd and also totally awesome the idea was, I numbered them into teams and set them on each other.
Instantly, the room was buzzing. This was the opposite of the first-class norm: total energy, smiling faces. (Way better than blank stares and glowing smart phones.)
The time constraint panicked everyone, of course, but it also concentrated their focus. After eight minutes every group had about a minutes’ worth of performance to share, and though they ranged in quality there were some outstanding, memorable gems. I’ll never forget the team that “yada yada-ed” plagiarism (I haven’t laughed that hard in a while)! But my favourite was the piece on “participation”. It began as invisible theatre, with the two performers pretending to fudge each other’s names and programs (TOTALLY convincing – they had me); they then adopted the personae of two very typical undergrads (the outgoing know-it-all and the shrinking, shy, anxious one) as they demonstrated – embodied, in fact – what “participation” means to each. Slam-dunk.
Did performing the syllabus convey to the class the key information ON the syllabus? I highly doubt it – but that was not at all the point. And this is what I loved best about performing the syllabus: rather than me pretending that whatever I do in the first class is going to stick like glue, we used the syllabus as a tool to have fun, to begin building our shared classroom community, and to make knowing jokes out of perennial teacher-student expectations. That doesn’t mean the class won’t be held to the standards in the syllabus; if anything, I suspect performing the syllabus made my students more likely to remember the syllabus, and maybe even read it at home. It certainly made for a memorable first class for me: for the first time ever, I managed to memorise all of their names by week two.
*A word of clarification for readers who don’t teach at universities: the course outline, at uni-level, is a legally binding document. At my school, instructors cannot, for example, introduce a new assignment half way through the course; at the same time, instructors are meant in the syllabus to state all expectations regarding absences, late assignments, classroom behaviour, etc, and those expectations thus become binding on students. The syllabus is also the place where professors say what plagiarism is, that it will not be tolerated, and that student papers may be fed without further warning through plagiarism-detection software if a teacher deems it fit to do so. You get the idea.