The unsyllabus

Brainstorming boardSorry I’ve been away from the blog a bit. This was my first week teaching at Quinnipiac University. I’ve felt really welcomed by this whole campus community, and am pretty excited about where the school is and where it is going. I’ve also been busy getting my Q-legs and bearings, so forgive any inattention to email.

It’s not exactly revolutionary, but after having put together a syllabus for my Media, Communications, and Society class, I deliberately got rid of it. Part of the issue is that I’m trying to put together ideas for a book, and it was too tempting to “teach the book,” even if it is just a twinkle at this point. Not a bad idea in general–and I may have a future seminar read the manuscript–but I worried that it was to egoistic, and that it may be unfair (or be perceived to be unfair) to read major papers from students writing in an area that I was hoping to write in. So, our first class was dedicated to planning the class.

I’m pretty pleased with the results. I still need to come up with a set of readings this weekend for much of the class, but the process was interesting for me, and I hope for the other seminar participants. You can click on the image of the brainstorming whiteboard to get a slightly bigger view, and can check out the schedule and syllabus for the course, if you like.

While I certainly sought to influence the process, and will influence it even more in the reading assignments, several of the topics that were of interest to the class were not ones I had really thought much about. And it seems as though they really do provide some thematic arcs. (As an aside, I love Trebor’s reads this semester.)

Next semester, I may go even further, and have us discuss and decide on the assignments and structure as well. Doing so is a high-risk proposition. If you walk into the classroom with–basically–no syllabus, there is always the concern that students will form one of two attitudes. First, they may think you don’t care much about the class, or are lazy. It’s not true, but it’s easy to see why this would be the case. Since I’ll be teaching this several times over the next few years, the laziest thing I could do is set a fixed syllabus and teach it the same each time. But appearances matter. The second problem is students may be anxious about the content if it’s not clear right from the start. I think having it clarified by the end of the first class is enough, but it is a danger.

Those two caveats aside, I think it was a really useful exercise, and got people thinking about what we would be doing during the semester. Given that we are talking a lot about networked communication and power, it seemed particularly appropriate.

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