Trying out a visual syllabus

I am teaching two courses this term, a first-year seminar and a 1-credit information literacy course required for English majors. Both are classes I've taught before, so naturally I had some changes to make over the summer.

Both classes are structured around one major assignment, and each time I've taught each course, some students have been confused about the projects: about the format, how the pieces fit together, and what the broader takeaways should be. This year, I wanted to address that day one of class, really demonstrate the projects we would be undertaking together. The first day of class can serve many different purposes, but navigating the "let's read the syllabus out loud" piece is always a bit of a challenge. It is incredibly important that students and teachers have a shared set of expectations, and the syllabus is the teacher's way of setting at least some of those. More importantly, in these two classes, I wanted to make sure students understood the big picture arc, the umbrella of what we were doing and why. But it can also drain all the fun out of the first class to fixate on the minutiae, and can also inspire frustration among students who, with good reason, feel they could read the syllabus on their own time.

Of course, in every credit course I've ever taught, I have also had plenty of students who didn't read the syllabus. I've tried syllabus quizzes and an Easter egg asking students to send me a picture of Alf if they get to the end of the syllabus -- the year I did that, I only got one Alf email, sadly. To be fair, though, I myself was a student who didn't read the syllabus, at least not front to tail, and probably mostly only when I had a specific question I thought it might answer. 

Anyway, with this particular problem I thought back to a write-up I had seen about using a visual syllabus to illustrate important course content for students. I ordered a book through ILL about visual syllabi, and I said a blessing to Lynda Barry's Syllabus on the shelf above my desk at work. What surprised me is how unappealing and confusing I found many of the visual syllabi: flowcharts and dense tables that CLEARLY needed a great deal of in-person explanation. What I wanted was essentially a first-day handout to complement the fullllll text syllabus posted in our course Canvas site. So, we didn't try to cram all the information in, but use it more as a poster for the class.

So, I took a crack at it, using my zinester aesthetics and clipart. (You can see the two handouts here.) As an iterative process, it actually helped us clear up some course organization issues. My co-instructor on the FYE course, archivist Tiah Edmunson-Morton, talked through with me some of the messiness. It was actually moving little pieces around on the paper when we realized that we needed to explicitly call out the ungraded modules on Canvas as part of the course-long project. FYE courses tend to highlight Changes You Will Experience In College, and one of those is definitely a shift in time to ungraded studying and work that students will do out of class. That is to say, just because it isn't graded, doesn't mean it is not required or not important. So, creating the visual syllabus gave us an opportunity to explicitly point that out in a way that would likely have been lost in the vast sea of the full-text syllabus. It has also been a reminder to refer back to the syllabus: a visual cue (remember that bright orange or bright blue sheet with the drawings on it?) instead of a purely textual cue. For the English course, I already regret putting on all the learning outcomes -- I had had big ideas about using the information-seeking cycle as the overall visual metaphor for the course, and mapping the assignments and outcomes onto that. However, I teach this course every term, so I will get another opportunity to revise it soon. 

Students responded with smiles and nods when I handed out syllabi in both classes, which is at least a more positive emotional response than a full-text syllabus usually gets. This is consistent with other times I have used craft in teaching -- college students often seem hungry for a change in pace from purely numerical or text-based learning. Of course, the proof will really come as students begin to put together their final projects. Will they have a better sense of how the pieces fit together, or why we are doing these things in the order we are doing them? I hope so, and if not, I am looking forward to getting specific feedback from students on how to make that handout more meaningful. If nothing else, this process has gotten me to examine my expectations about what the syllabus does for students, and what it could or should do.