On Syllabi, Boundary Objects and Prototypes

Following our conversation in class yesterday, I thought it’d be helpful to pull together some of the feedback generated from our questions on Syllabus Design and our final Annotation write ups.

So: the following are Some Notes on Syllabi as Objects:

  • keep in mind that a syllabus is always a function of design: in this case, of a long, drawn out, and patient conversation over 8 to 16 weeks – with built in and extended pauses (important ones, when ideas get to simmer and develop) until the next time (ie, class) that conversation gets to reconvene. In the process, you are drawing yourself into “conversation” with other actors: with your participants/students in class most directly, but also with the authors of texts that you draw in as “readings” – AND (thirdly) in our special case, with your collaborator in syllabus design. In this rather basic sense, syllabi are not just objects, but function indeed as our own boundary objects (in the vein of Star and Griesemer’s framing).
  • our syllabi are meant to offer a proto-type (ie. a proposition and model rather than a polished, finished product) in what can be generated in drawing in our third actor – our collaborator – into the process of design.
  • traditionally (ie. in most university courses today), the “learning process/outcome” tends to focus on: required readings, engendering a close engagement of those selected readings by class participants/students, and some proof of “mastery” in those concepts via a final, end of term project (in a kind of flourished “tah-dah” moment). This is the kind of mastery model is of course precisely the kind of “banking” practice that Paolo Freire and critical pedagogist modes of practice mean to contest.
  • in our case, though: varied other learning outcomes are possible, simply given our drawing in of a collaborator: that of merely translating ourselves across disciplines/lines of difference to our collaborator (plenty of work, as all our authors for this class remind us); in co-creating a new approach and method to “teaching subject X”; in having identified “subject X” as a subject for a class at all!
  • in other words, in making a course’s design collaborative: we as instructors are drawn into our own learning process: which is why our collaborative design process can and might explicitly function for some of us as part of our “research” process for our larger projects. This is something that’s indeed akin to Henry Giroux’s challenge to instructors to move beyond a “politics of difference” to instead enable classroom participants (ie. students and instructors alike) to recognize themselves as active agents in learning actions/struggles.

Our collaborations are each distinct, and so naturally, what we produce will be informed by the contours of that relation, how you (and your collaborator) want it to function, and what it means for us to “collaborate across disciplines” and diverse knowledge practices. For some of us, the aim of our collaborative syllabus is to prototype a new practice of interdisciplinary teaching we hope to actualize, others are looking more to accomplish an intersectional lit review of interdisciplinary fields, but compiled and informed now by a present interdisciplinary relation and collaboration.

For all of us, though, our syllabus should platform a course that would run 8 to 16 weeks (standard university course length). Some shared pragmatics to keep in mind in composing our Annotations for our Annotated Syllabi:

  1. Annotations can include/address:
    • brief summaries of the readings you co-selected, and the key concepts you want to flush out in the class.
    • a reflection on how such readings are typically framed (within the disciplines, or are normally taught), how you (and/or your collaborator) want those readings to function, and why they were compiled together, what you left out and decided not to include, and any key questions you want to explore with students or your collaborator in the course of the putting them to work in class.
    • activities planned (beyond discussion and analysis of the readings), a reflection on how such activities were designed, and a consideration of what work you want them to do as a potentially novel addition to the teaching of “subject X.”
    • how such class materials (ie. readings, activities, etc) mean to translate your topic and key questions to your particular audience (so that the concepts might resonate differently for that audience).
    • a reflection and report on any difficulties – theoretical, pragmatic, or even with your collaborator – that were encountered in the process of designing that module, and how (if at all) it was resolved.
  2. Don’t feel pressure to maintain the same balance between readings and activities in every week’s class module: In the period of a full course, not all classes are meant to function in the same way. Some classes are meant to function traditionally, that is to simply focus on readings and frame key concept as the main activity (and classes in the early portion of a course almost always function this way, to simply orient and ground students). Other classes might incorporate more hands on activities, or seek to apply concepts in some material way. Some can be a mix of such activities. But like our normal conversations, they don’t necessarily look or flow uniformly.
  3. Readings and texts selected for assignments can be mixed: some might be theoretical, scholarly texts that we’d traditionally assign in a university class; others might be more journalistic, long form news articles, literary essays, literature, popular cultural texts (films, comics, etc), existing archives and online sites, etc. Some weeks might only have 1 theoretical reading, balanced against other kinds of texts. Feel free to draw in readings we’ve done from our class (as you’ve already done the work here). The key thing I’ll consider is a thoughtful, considered selection of readings, that are responsive to your collaboration, and hopefully creatively generative.
  4. Your Annotations for each class module need not be the same length: some of your class modules might be doing more “work” (pedagogically or theoretically) than others. Or, some might have required more “work” and “negotiations” from you with your collaborator or other involved actors, that you want to address. So: some week’s class annotations might be exceptionally long – others much shorter. The key thing I’ll look for is thoughtful engagement through the construction of your course’s “extended conversation” – in 15 pages ;]

Like in conventional pedagogical encounters, ours too are organized first around the act of fixing (however provisionally) a selection of texts and designed activities to a page. These acts of fixing (and there are multiple, even in designing something as seemingly “nontechnical” as a syllabus) entail all kinds of work – social literary, theoretical – in order to construct a bounded class as a “long conversation.” Even without a collaborator, in other words, this work already is social and intersectional. Fixing ideas to the page – online or off – means that they can live as a kind of immutable mobile, even following the course’s imagined end. This could do additional social work for you. And your conclusion/concluding thoughts to your annotations would be a welcome space to consider if and how this could matter for what you’ve designed.

Tara Mcpherson in her 2012 essay “Why are the Digital Humanities So White?”, though, asks whether the gestures toward collaboration in conventional academic practices – including our conventions around citations and referencing within the humanities and social sciences – are sufficient to confront new challenges and a politics of division she traces back to modular design principles. And she of course challenges us to do more – much more – to break up the kinds of “modular” divisions she sees the social science and humanities as increasingly adopting (the silo effect we’ve talked about between disciplines and departments) … And she pushes us to instead to challenge ourselves with constructively and deliberatively collaborative practices in our own day-to-day academic routines.

Drawing in our collaborators in a concrete practice of co-design and the co-creation of a teaching tool is just this. It is not just a gesture towards inter-disciplinarity: it is both a risk and a commitment to making our projects deliberately and in-practice collaborative and intersectional. This is no easy task – but you’ve all already begun to make terrific inroads in our first attempts and trials as a class. I’ll look forward to seeing more in the upcoming weeks! ;]



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