Sticking to the Syllabus (Or Not!): Feb. 11 With My Students

Tahrir SquareBack on an Open Thread Wednesday in February, reader hmprescott63 asked about possible remedies once one’s gotten behind in the syllabus (in that particular instance, it was a combination of snow days and sick days).

I’ve also had a combination of factors that have cut days from my syllabus. Two of those were completely unavoidable: one was a sick day and one was a snow day (the first my college has had in twenty years).

One of my “lost” days, however, I inflicted on myself—and quite intentionally, though it wasn’t planned. Like a lot of people, since late January I’d been watching with great interest as events unfolded in Egypt. On February 10th, I’d listened with dismay to the speeches by President Hosni Mubarak and Vice President Omar Suleiman. I went to bed that night really wondering just what would happen the next day, and sensing that, for good or for ill, it would be significant.

When I got up the next morning, I turned on the radio right away. Things were still tense in Egypt, and I began to wonder what I was going to do in my three classes that day. I tweeted:

DescriptionAnd that’s exactly what I ended up doing. In all three of my classes that day (two sections of Political Thought and one section of Human Rights), I scrapped my lesson plans, and my students and I sat and watched a live feed from Tahrir Square together, along with commentary on the days events. (The two Political Thought sections met at 9:00 and 10:00 am EST, and the Human Rights class met at 1:00 pm EST, so I got to see some of the progression of the day’s events.)

Why did I do this?

First, I thought it was important for students to witness history in the making, and to talk about what was going on. In some ways, the sense of excitement around the event felt a bit like what my classmates and I felt during our senior year of college, when the protests that eventually brought down the Berlin Wall were going on.

Second, there was a way to link the events to things we were discussing in class, even if the link wasn’t immediately obvious. For the course in Human Rights, the link was clear enough. But even in Political Thought, where we were in the midst of Plato’s Republic, I could make a link. As I pointed out to my students, political thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it happens as real people observe and reflect on the world around them. Plato’s context was the aftermath of the Peloponnesian War and all that that meant for Athens and for Socrates; our context is considerably different, but the real-world building blocks needed for political theorizing are still with us. We watched some of them unfold before us in Egypt.

Of course, doing this meant that I missed a third planned day on my syllabus, so I had to figure out how to get back on track. As a practical matter, I was behind in my syllabus.

In my own case, I’ve found that there aren’t easy ways around this. I always try to build one or two unscheduled days (listed as TBA on the syllabus) into the semester. That helps some, but it doesn’t take care of three missed days.

In one of my classes, I unexpectedly gained an extra day when a guest speaker had to cancel. In the other class, though, I ended up simply having to make a choice. What was I going to cut to make up for the missed days? I toyed with the idea of squeezing one of the authors I’d planned to have us look at into a day of lecture, rather than having students spend two or three days reading and discussing the material, but in the end I opted to just eliminate that particular author from the syllabus altogether.

I’m okay with that, but in the future I’d like to prepare better for a messed up syllabus. Instead of making choices on the fly, I’ll try to think before the semester starts about what I could reasonably drop from the semester’s plan, should the need arise.

What about you? Have you ever ditched a day’s lesson plans to have your students attend to world events instead? What were the results? And how have you gotten back “on track” when, for whatever reasons, you found yourself way behind in the syllabus? Let us know in the comments!

[Initial image by Flickr user Jonathan Rashad / Creative Commons licensed. Second image by the author / Creative Commons licensed.]

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