Hackable syllabus 2.0

Over winter break, I did something that most of my peers would — rightly — describe as insane. I took a course that I had just finished teaching, which I was scheduled to teach again this semester, and I more or less redesigned it from the ground up. The normal thing to do, of course, would have been to take my fall syllabus, change all the dates, and be done with it. Maybe if I were feeling especially ambitious — or if I knew something had bombed abysmally — I’d have swapped out a reading or two. But even for someone (like me) who rarely teaches any course precisely the same way twice, this was an extreme overhaul: i.e., the sort of thing I might do if the gap between the two versions of the course was a few years. While I used the same required text, that only kept the first two weeks or so of readings intact. Otherwise, it’s pretty much a completely new course.

tt_4291.jpgSo why the radical renovation? There are probably many reasons (and my dubious grip on sanity may still be one of them), but one of the biggest is that the fall version of the course was the latest in a long line of “experiments” I’ve undertaken with what I call a “hackable syllabus” . . . and it seemed to me that the main pedagogical goals I’d been trying to achieve had never actually come to fruition, and so the time had come to rethink the nature of that experiment.

The experiment in question originally grew out of a summer grad seminar on “Communication and Critical Pedagogy” that I taught towards the end of my time at USF. In the midst of one of those seminar discussions, when we were talking about the need to give students a significant measure of control over their own education, I decided that my previous efforts to do such a thing had been too superficial — e.g., letting students select from a pre-determined menu of assignments, or giving them flexible due dates for papers — and that I needed to embrace this philosophy more fully. Coincidentally, for reasons I can neither recall nor explain, sometime that same summer I also heard about a game called Nomic. I’ve still never actually played the game, but its fundamental nature — it’s essentially a meta-game, where you play the game by changing the rules of the game as you go along — struck me as something that could fit very nicely with my newfound desire to turn as much of a course over to my students as I possibly could. And so the hackable syllabus was born . . .

On its surface, the hackable syllabus looks incredibly complex — which is probably necessary, but also probably one of its major flaws. In practice, it’s much simpler than it appears to be: students can propose changes to almost any and every rule on the syllabus (including the reading list, due dates, and the graded assignments), the class as a whole discusses and votes on proposals, and proposals that are voted into place become part of the course rules. Most of the apparent complexity lies in setting up a fair and reliable mechanism by which the rules can actually be changed. The actual process varied slightly from one version of the syllabus to another, but the underlying core — propose rule changes, discuss them, vote on them — was still pretty simple . . . yet, time after time, students routinely got hung up on the mechanism in countless different ways, and never, ever really took control of the syllabus at the level I had hoped they might.

To be sure, they had good incentives to do so. Every hackable syllabus contained deliberately cruel and unreasonable rules that students needed to locate and vote out of existence, lest said “bad rules” come into play. And every successful rule change resulted in the authors of said change earning an extra point tacked onto their final course grades. Still, over seven different courses, each with slightly different versions of the hackable syllabus, a consistent pattern emerged: students would eliminate all the bad rules (though, typically, they would only do so after a false start or three), they would tweak some extraordinarily minor aspect of the grading policy (e.g., eliminating penalties for late arrivals and early departures), and they’d be done. No one ever tried to change the reading list. No one ever proposed a different sort of graded assignment be added to the menu of options. Once they’d freed themselves of the need to bring impossible-to-find yoga mats to class (and so on), they were perfectly content to leave the core of the course — i.e., what they had to read and write — up to me.

Of course, this “failure” was never really my students’ fault. At some crucial level, I always knew that, and probably should have done something about it sooner. If nothing else, by the time students wound up in one of my hackable syllabus courses, they had all experienced 15-20 years of education where they had routinely been handed a set of readings and assignments on Day One, and that was that. So of course they never raced to revise the reading list or to envision new assignments: never having been asked to do such a thing before, the odds that they would suddenly take such an initiative were slim to none.

So that radical rewrite of my fall syllabus was all about finding ways to encourage this semester’s batch of students to help build our reading list. (Encouraging them to craft new types of assignments is a goal that will have to wait for some future course. Baby steps, people. Baby steps.) I gave them a syllabus where the first month’s worth of readings was all lined up. After that, each week has a theme and one starter reading in place . . . and it’s up to them to come up with enough other readings (or videos, or audios, as they see fit) to bring us up to ~100 pages/week (or its audio-visual equivalent). There are collective sticks for falling short of that page-count target, and individual carrots for helping to reach it.

And, so far anyway, it seems to be working. We’re currently two weeks deep into the land of “Student-Provided Readings” and the group has hit the target both times, and put some worthy material on the table for us to read and watch and discuss. We’ll see how it goes for the next ten weeks or so but, to this point, I’m feeling pretty good about that “insane” decision.

[Bonus for any of my spring 2012 undergrads who happen to be reading this: Cut-and-paste any full entry from this blog and send it to me in an email. For every full course week left in the semester after your email lands in my inbox, I'll add 0.5 points to your course grade and shrink your Take-Home Final by 50 words and 0.5 points. You're free to share this information with your classmates if you so choose . . . but not on the course website. If news of this bonus ever lands there, the bonus goes away, and all previously awarded benefits will be taken away. P.S.: Perhaps needless to say, this is a one-time-only bonus for anyone who happens to collect it.]

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