Teaching the Shadow Syllabus

Many teachers wrote to me to tell me that they were going to distribute the text of my blog post, A Shadow Syllabus, to their classes. When I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking about sharing it with my own students; it was personal, and I didn’t think more than ten people would read it. It was written to discover what I actually thought about my syllabi.

b0f3dd522cb211e19896123138142014_7But as the numbers of emails began to increase, I began to feel like it would be strange if I didn’t share it with my own students. Then I got nervous. If I assigned it for my own students, they would be reading a personal manifesto of sorts, written not by a stranger who was an author but by their teacher, in a very intimate tone that closes the distance between student and teacher.

First, I considered assigning it as a reading, but then I got nervous–nervous enough that this was the main thing I worried about as I got my copies and my rosters ready this morning. I considered the fact that maybe the boldness of my secret-voice blog-persona does not match my teacher-persona, which has elements of Blog Girl but also carefully crafted strategies for gaining authority and establishing structure in the classroom. (Those are necessary, because I have looked for most of my life like a hobbit twelve-year-old and I laugh a lot). The blog post pokes holes at the authority I try to establish. I tell all my teaching secrets–or many o f them.

And then there is the matter of tone and mood as it intersects with the schedule: the gritty honesty of some sections is more in line with the mood of Week 12 than Week 1. Week 1 is the hard work of building bonds and running hard into the wind to try to get the ship aloft, with some humor and some ambition. The confrontation with our failing flailing selves comes later, as the deadlines approach and pass.

Experienced students know this, but first-day of first-year college students do not. What would they think?What effect would this have on the course of the semester?

The safest thing, I decided, would be to share sections aloud. It would be audible ephemera; hopefully no parent would get forwarded a link that would be upset at my bad attitude.Still, this felt like a huge risk for me, and I’ve read very revealing text in many public forums. I’ve read personal writing in my creative writing classes. But this was even more vulnerable, because it was about teaching as teaching was happening.

SoI talked about the surprise of something about teaching going viral. Then I started to read, but I edited.

I cut out numbers 16-21 about all the ways we’ll annoy each other, even though they are true, because bonding is job 1 right now, and I figured that would interfere with my class. The bond of the class, with my particular students’ learning as the priority, is most important. Same with numbers 24-28. I cut 30-33 because they seemed too esoteric, too close to the view of a teacher, too far from the concerns of someone just learning to be a college student. I want them to be where they are, not to empathize with me. For that reason, I cut 34-36 too, even though they are in some ways my favorite, because it didn’t feel right sharing this with my students. My own students. Even though it’s true. I’ll have to think more about why, but I didn’t want to lay #36 on them on the first day.

As I read it to in my English 11 class, I felt that kind of hush and focus that happens sometimes at a reading. I felt like I was stepping outside of what was expected of me as a teacher, and that the step toward vulnerability raised the stakes for the class–not in terms of crossing boundaries but in terms of honesty. Maybe this means we’ll be better able to talk about Ferguson, MO, about all the other major issues we can talk about this term.

At the end, a guy in the back raised his hand and said, “But we can find the rest online, right?”

After I read even the sections, I knew it was the right thing to do. And I talked about how audience for readings can be surprising, as can the appeal of a text. I talked about form (the syllabus) and send-up/satire (the list). I brought it back to goals and objectives even as I joked about those things.

In my Publishing class, I read even less of it to my students because I’ve had these students before, and some of them had already discovered a link to the post on Facebook. The myths in the Shadow Syllabus are ones they have likely already seen behind. Even the first part that I read, though, felt like pulling off a mask, and it was a relief to pull off that mask.

It was a good way to start the semester, and I want to thank you with your excitement for helping me dare myself to do it.

Maybe this would happen anyway as my teaching career progressed, but I think it wasn’t a guarantee. This is the challenge for me as a teacher: how to be vulnerable with my students without crossing boundaries, how to respect their space to grow while still challenging them, how to keep the focus on them while reminding them that others are complex, how to question the roles we’re placed in while still using what is fruitful from those roles.

If anyone has experiences with sharing the Shadow Syllabus with students, I’d love to hear about it.


5 responses to “Teaching the Shadow Syllabus”

  1. We read your Shadow Syllabus together (in a first year seminar), and students responded quite well. They understood the tone, the invitation for what they called a “real relationship” with the professor. Then I promised that I would write them my own shadow syllabus for them, if they told me what they wanted to know. They did, and I did. We talked about that yesterday, and it helped create quite a bit of community in the room. For me, the writing of the thing also helped me clarify for myself what I really wanted from them, from myself, from the interchange. I also invited students to write their own “shadow syllabi,” focusing on what they wished their professors knew about them. Two, so far, have done so. All in all, I found the openness of the exercise to be quite liberating for the students, eye-opening, useful. I imagine we’ll be making shorthand reference to the exercise throughout the term.


Leave a Reply to rdill1 Cancel reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: