Teaching Tuesday: Without a Syllabus

Over the last few years, I’ve started to do some work to flip my classroom in both my introductory level and mid-level courses. I’ve also discovered that students have come to expect a certain amount of classroom inversion at my institution. What I used to have to explain and justify for students has now become expected. In general, I think this is a good trend in education.

This morning, I meet with a group of 10 students who have signed up for a one-credit course that will focus on Montgomery Hall. Montgomery Hall is among the older buildings on campus having once served as the university commons, then as the library, before becoming the deanery for Arts and Sciences and the Graduate School, and building filled with storage and small departments. Over the years, the building’s prime spot on the main road through campus and its awkward orientation toward the rest of campus and use of Tudor style architecture rather than the prevailing College Gothic has made it vulnerable to more ambitious campus planners. As a result, the building is slated for demolition this year. 

While this is bad for the building, it is good for students, because it means that once again, we have a building that we can explore as a way to understand architecture, the history of campus, and the complex ways that we might memorialize these buildings and understand how campuses change.

Two years ago, I ran a similar class focused on two now-demolished buildings associated with Wesley College on the campus of UND. In the case of this class, I very much set the agenda and enlisted students as co-researchers who helped me document the building and the objects left behind at abandonment. Over the course of the class, however, students began to get their own ideas and set their own agendas. By the end of the class, the data that I collected was far less interesting than the work of the students themselves. The optimist in me imagined that my research established a framework for the students to explore their own interests, but part of me wondered how the students might do if I hadn’t framed so much of their early interaction with the building.

So, this semester, I’m going to leave the class more open ended. For example, I’m not going to have a syllabus. I’m also not going to tell the students what I want them to do. Instead, I’m going to talk about ways to KNOW a building in general, munch on donuts, and listen to how they think about campus, campus-changes, and commemorating or recognizing the history of campus over time. In the past, I’ve been interested in the tensions between campus as a dynamic place and campus as a place saturated with history and traditions. As recent controversies surrounding the Silent Sam statue on UNC’s campus, the renaming of buildings at Brown, Calhoun College at Yale, and others across the U.S. often marks the intersection between broadly progressive values and the role that college campuses play as mnemonic landscapes for generations of alumni and students.

Framing the class at this very intersection – between formal requirements of a syllabus and the less structured experiences and attitude of students toward their built environment – might set up new ways of thinking about campus buildings and changes over time. 

The class starts now, so we’ll see.   

One Comment

  1. I’ll be interested to hear how this goes — classroom flipping and more open-ended learning opportunities is something I’m trying to do now at Macquarie. I guess I will hear about it on your blog!


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