According to the veteran educators William Germano and Kit Nicholls in their new book, Syllabus (Princeton University Press), this “Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything” is a strange thing to behold: Functionally it “almost” stands as “a synonym for the methodical organization of modern educational practice.” The syllabus sets the table for everything a teacher wants to accomplish during an academic term, yet faculty members often treat it like something to be breezed through on the first day, and it is commonly understood that most students will simply skim or ignore it. (So commonly understood, in fact, that you can buy ironic/unironic
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According to the veteran educators William Germano and Kit Nicholls in their new book, Syllabus (Princeton University Press), this “Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything” is a strange thing to behold: Functionally it “almost” stands as “a synonym for the methodical organization of modern educational practice.” The syllabus sets the table for everything a teacher wants to accomplish during an academic term, yet faculty members often treat it like something to be breezed through on the first day, and it is commonly understood that most students will simply skim or ignore it. (So commonly understood, in fact, that you can buy ironic/unironic READ. THE. SYLLABUS. T-shirts online.) Apparently both a mind-numbing chore and a sacred foundation, the syllabus floats in a sort of in-between space that many instructors do not examine rigorously enough.
Alongside the text, pulsing all around it, every course has a vibe. If you’ve taught before, you know — you can pick it up the moment you enter a room. So can students. Every classroom teems with affective, rhetorical, and intellectual energy flowing not only “between you and the individual student, or even between you and the room full of students taken as a whole,” but among students themselves. That is why Germano and Nicholls’s investigation of the text, context, and subtext of syllabi foregrounds what we might call acoustic pedagogy. To their credit, it’s an apt metaphor: A good teacher figures as the bassist whose guiding pulse “enables the group to improvise and enables individual performers both to practice playing steady and to test the limits of their instruments.”
What is an instructor’s job, after all, if not to conduct, direct, harness, and amplify these energy flows in the amphitheater of learning? A good conductor uses every element of the space, and every quality of the band, to draw out the music of something singular coming into being. For instance, if lively discussion and collective endeavor are the basis of a transformative course, then so is silence — sometimes students just freeze, sometimes they need time to ponder the questions and challenges a professor gives them. It’s all music in the making, and a good teacher must know when to shut up and wait for it to emerge. That can be unnerving, especially for new instructors, but “silences, sometimes even the long, awkward ones, are a necessary part of the music of our classrooms, defining its rhythm.”
To name the elephant in the room, though, this pedagogical model isn’t universal. The authors of Syllabus teach at Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science, and their faith (which I share) in the power of discussion, cooperation, and intellectual collectivity is admittedly best suited to the environments you find in liberal-arts colleges and classrooms: small-group settings where students explore ideas with peers and instructors. Implicit in Germano and Nicholls’s work is the reality that ever-ballooning class sizes and teaching assignments are pedagogically disastrous, because the bigger a professor’s workload is, and the more unwieldy the conditions in which they have to conduct, the less the professor can actually connect with and nurture individuals. Indeed, I wish the authors were even more direct about this, because it is, in my view, the crux of everything.
For all the pedagogical fodder it provides (and it provides a lot), Syllabus does not aggressively confront the reality that contemporary college pedagogy takes place under duress, amid terrible working conditions, and that these conditions are not and will never be separate from pedagogical practice. Ask any adjunct teaching a 5/5 load on a limited contract, with no office, a $30K salary, watchful administrators peering from on high, and an increasingly hostile U.S. public wondering why universities exist in the first place: How easy is it to develop professionally, innovate pedagogically, and teach bravely? No, really, ask them. With the nontenured making up nearly 75 percent of the professoriate now, these precarious workers are not hard to find. Someone with tenure, however, might give you a radically different answer — and that’s the point.
How, in other words, do you put theory into practice when the house is ablaze and arsonists run the fire department?
To be clear, Germano and Nicholls do acknowledge and contend with these conditions at certain points in the book. However, as many in higher ed have done for some time, they present these hard material realities as unevenly distributed impediments to our scholarship rather than as the defining condition of all scholarly work today. They do not rigorously, consistently account for how neoliberal, quasi-corporate university regimes make it more difficult for teachers to do what most teachers do well despite everything: lift students into brighter, fully actualized versions of themselves. Thus, this admirable contribution to a growing body of scholarship leaves questions: How can the vast majority of academic workers use the lessons of a text like Syllabus when we have to fight so hard just to secure a place where we can even begin to apply them? How, in other words, do you put theory into practice when the house is ablaze and arsonists run the fire department?
For Germano and Nicholls, an effective syllabus articulates a “pedagogy of inclusiveness” by establishing an environment that centers student independence, facilitates “distributed agency,” and nurtures a democratic “knowing among one another” rather than reinforce ironclad professorial expertise and top-down management. Achieving what they call “full classroom citizenship” doesn’t come from harshly underscoring penalties for absences or late papers (although, of course, a syllabus says something about those, too). Instead, coupled with a professor’s conducting prowess, the way a syllabus is crafted and presented can help draw that citizenship into being by inviting students to engage in the same intellectual work their teachers do, by taking their needs and goals seriously, and by empowering “the collective will of everyone in the room, a collective will that the teacher can only encourage but never command.” So, kill the lecturer in your head, forget about being a detached sage, realize that your authority will evaporate if you don’t treat your students as genuine adult equals — and make your syllabus reflect that.
This is easier said than done, of course, especially in an institutional environment that prizes the kind of “learning” that can be measured, quantified, and standardized — “learning” that can be made more linear and efficient so that students can become effective workers (or owners, if they’re blessed), and colleges can crow about graduation rates. Syllabus rejects this instrumentalist framing and argues instead for what experienced teachers already know: that learning is recursive, ambiguous, and fundamentally open-ended. Referring to the “always-incompleteness of a course,” Germano and Nicholls underscore “the gift of nuance and paradox” and contend that we should emphasize “another type of student learning: the growth of students’ comfort with ambiguity and discovery of the unfinished work that drives continued research.”
And yet research points to one big thing getting in the way of such durable, meaningful learning: letter grades. The authors decry “the tyranny of grades,” arguing that our evaluative regime is emblematic of the broader ideological debasement of neoliberalized institutions, where Learning Outcomes (or whatever management calls them) have to be quantifiable and articulable in bureaucratic terms, and where students often see themselves as paying customers who deserve high marks. And managers reinforce this: “Many, many faculty,” Germano and Nicholls observe, “have had the uncomfortable experience of being contacted by a dean or other administrator after having given a student a bad grade: Would it be possible for us to raise it, either so the student can pass the course or so the student (or a parent) will leave the dean alone? Tenured faculty can try to resist these requests. Adjunct faculty may have no choice but to leave standards behind and make the problem go away.”
There’s a lot more to say here about how these power dynamics, and the institutional structures in which they are embedded, shape and delimit the very possibility of the kind of learning that Germano and Nicholls want to conjure. The maddening problem, though, is that this is precisely what goes unsaid. It doesn’t seem unfair to wish they had taken more direct aim at power structures and labor economies instead of just dealing them a glancing blow. In the end, the frustrating thing about Syllabus is not that it ignores the conditions that professors work under, but that it doesn’t engage them in depth. Thus, its theorizations — smart and sensible as they are — fail to fully grapple with higher education’s shaky status quo, rendered even shakier now by Covid-19.
The “future” isn’t “coming for us” — it’s already here.
I say all this, rather, because I firmly believe that those of us in academia have long passed the point where we can divorce any subject of disciplinary, pedagogical, or even managerial inquiry from the screaming material contexts in which academic inquiry takes shape today. And we have long lost the right to claim ignorance about the harm it does to act otherwise. As K-12 unions like to remind us, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Syllabus neglects to account for this relationship within its theory of pedagogy.
The most frustrating thing about Syllabus is that the authors do acknowledge this — but, for some reason, the book itself is written as if they don’t fully believe it. Late in Syllabus, for instance, they refer to “the strange future that seems to be coming for us,” the implication being that “strange” means “not very good at all.” That’s an odd way to describe a process of privatization, corporatization, and neoliberalization that has been going on for decades, as Adrianna Kezar, Tom DePaola, and Daniel T. Scott recently demonstrated in The Gig Academy. The “future” isn’t “coming for us” — it’s already here.
Germano and Nicholls are also wary of naming enemies, whether by class or individually. They hedge when they should strike hard; they duck some questions; they don’t account for the real, iron power channels of higher education. After a while, even those reading in good faith will start to seriously wonder: Why?
To be fair, the authors admit that 21st-century professors are harried — “Is there a more precious and rarer commodity [than time] in academic life?” they ask — and they acknowledge the challenge of “maintain[ing] some semblance of a family or social life.” But they say little about how instructors can navigate this slough of despond while still transforming their syllabi and imagining new classroom music. Quite sensibly, they emphasize that grades without feedback — rich, personalized feedback, the kind we give students in writing seminars — are essentially useless, but they are pretty quiet about what happens if you’re cobbling together gigs at multiple campuses, with classes that are too big, and students who are stressed out and gloomy and overworked because they, too, inhabit the universe of what the economist Thomas Piketty calls hypercapitalism.
Germano and Nicholls note that “anxiety and depression are troubling many, many young people — and plenty of us teachers, too.” So how should a contemporary syllabus address that? What can the pedagogy they describe do for students struggling with hunger, landlords, mental illness, technological access, and debt? How does the enormous effect of the coronavirus pandemic factor in? I’ve taken to putting information on my syllabi for students who need, for instance, the number of the campus food bank, because you can’t learn if you are starving, no matter how committed your professor is to teaching well.
Germano and Nicholls’s theory is, by design, focused on a single category of document. But what about the other written materials that shape learning? When emphasizing the need for instructors to cohesively link their assignments throughout the term, the authors speak of “the totality of assignments in a syllabus.” But I’ve never taught classes where assignments are welded into the syllabus itself — at the University of Southern California and every other campus where I have worked, teachers use separate prompts for each writing assignment. These, more than the syllabus, constitute the course’s granular infrastructure. They contain explanations of purpose, articulate learning goals, assign readings, provide tips for writing well, and present the day-by-day working calendar for a unit. The syllabus is the Constitution, but it is not the whole of the law.
Syllabus would also be stronger if it offered readings of particular syllabi. Theory benefits from a textual foundation. I realize the risk of getting too deep into the weeds of specific documents; that could end up being tedious. But surely some close interpretations are in order. Even as a veteran instructor, I sometimes found this book to be curiously abstract; I wanted to see how other professors design and use their syllabi. I desired, like most teachers, material that I could borrow to enrich my own work. This would accord with what is already happening within the profession, where we use venues like Twitter, Google Drive, and conferences to share syllabi and assignments.
Any worthwhile materialist pedagogy would need to grapple with a complex of questions that pertain to both the environments that students encounter and the conditions under which professorial labor occurs. Crucially, any provisional answer to such questions would have to be grounded in daily practice; otherwise “pedagogy is the new theory” ends up describing an arid, performative exercise in scholarly résumé-building. Syllabus could serve as a provocative opening to debates about what such a materialist pedagogy should look like. But moving beyond its limitations will involve asking questions like:
- How can academic assignments contest or evade the neoliberal logic of competition, ranking, grading, sorting, tracking, and comparison?
- How can the work students do in their classes be linked to their own lived experience and sociohistorical contexts, in ways that also acknowledge the work that scholars/professors do?
- Can students be allowed/encouraged to forcefully critique their own home institutions? To what extent should they be taught directly about the workplace pressures on, say, adjuncts? And how can this teaching produce critical student work, such as writing?
- How can syllabi link intellectual and communicative practices to what Sara Goldrick-Rab calls #RealCollege (hunger, housing, debt, and racism, for example)?
- Professors, by virtue of their extensive training, know more about their subjects than students do. So how should instructors balance the need for rigor and intellectual authority with the necessities of openness, equity, and participatory class culture? How can teachers be nurturing experts instead of autocrats, retaining their authority through consent rather than force?
- To what extent can student knowledge supplement and expand professorial expertise? What do we not know?
Germano and Nicholls open many doors, and even if they don’t always walk through them, they have made a valuable contribution to a wave of teaching scholarship that includes texts like David Gooblar’s The Missing Course, John Warner’s Why They Can’t Write, and Sarah Rose Cavanagh’s The Spark of Learning. This is a flawed but necessary book. It will invite further debate, will provoke more writing, will lead teachers deeper into the nuances, paradoxes, frustrations, and possibilities of the project we call higher education.