Teaching Tuesday: Writing my Syllabus in the Time of COVID

We’re supposed to have some kind of syllabus available for students enrolled in our fall semester classes. I’ve been fussing over how to articulate the unsettled state of the fall semester and the inevitable anxiety that this will create in our students (as well, of course, as faculty).

I’ve also thought a good bit about Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto (2020), which I wrote about earlier in the summer. He reminds us that learning is hard and this simple point is a call to be both more compassionate with how we engage our students and more understanding in how we create space for learning in our classroom. He proposes syllabi that aren’t a long list of requirements, but part of a frank conversation that we have with our students that opens the door to establishing shared expectations and aspirations and marking these out as reciprocal. 

Along similar lines, I’ve been inspired a bit by Jeffery Moro’s call for us to “Abolish Cop Shit” in our classrooms. This has obvious implications in syllabus writing (and it really summarizes a bunch of problems at the intersection of learning, ed-tech, and the role of education in disciplining bodies and minds for compliance culture). 

Here’s what I have so far as the opening to my History 105: World History to 1500 syllabus:

Hello, class and welcome to History 105: World History to 1500.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the syllabus, I want to discuss my view of the coming semester.

The last six months have been a period of crazy uncertainty, anxiety, and frustration. From endless Zoom meetings to an interrupted spring semester, social distancing, and mask, we’ve all had to figure out the “new normal.” It seems almost inevitable that this semester will be unsettled in some way.

Because we know that things will be unsettled and that we’re all in this together, I’ll do all I can to communicate with you regularly. This means I’ll respond promptly to your emails, I’ll post regular updates to Blackboard, and I’ll be available to meet with you via Zoom or face-to-face as the situation allows.

It also means that I hope you’ll communicate regularly with me and your fellow classmates throughout the semester. Good communication will not only help us all stay on the same page, but also make it possible for us to adapt quickly and flexibly to any changes in the situation over the course of the semester. We’ll talk about the various ways to communicate in this class.

The unsettled nature of the fall semester also means that you have to trust that I’m going to be fair and reasonable with this class. I’ll do all I can to maintain a consistent  workload and grading expectations over the course of the semester, and if we have to change assignments, I’ll try to offer different options to accommodate different situations and goals for the class. 

In exchange, I hope that you will all do the best that you can to keep you eyes on this class over the next 16 weeks. We’re all in this together.


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