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Syllabus Experiments

The experiment
The Experiment by Clement 127
used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

Every year, at the end of August and the end of February, I sit down to prepare my syllabi, planning out my classes and assignments, tailoring the schedule to each semester’s holidays/days off.  When I was an undergraduate, I hated vague syllabi that never bothered to include the actual dates, just Week 1, Week 2, etc, so I’ve always taken the time to put in specific dates for classes, assignments, and exams.   I usually teach several sections of the same classes- mostly Introduction to American Government, so my content didn’t necessarily change. It used to be that I would switch the days, make any little adjustments from what had worked well previously, and be done.  

But a few years ago, I started really thinking about who was in my classes.  The majority of college students, including those I now teach at a public community college, are classified as nontraditional (the fact that 74% of any population being classified as “nontraditional” is a big argument for another time), which means in addition to my class, they have a least some of the following to balance: other classes, part-time or full-time work, figuring out school after having been out for awhile, and/or caring responsibilities for children/siblings/parents.  We’re a community college with no dorms, so everyone is commuting. When I started exploring OER a few years ago, I dug into specific institutional data about the students at my campus (which is on a beautiful beach in one of the most wonderful and expensive cities in the world), whereupon I learned that 66% of our students come from households with an annual income of less than $30,000.  That’s about the time I started experimenting, a lot, with how I teach. I began to follow a lot of open educators on Twitter (@actualham, @thatpsychprof, @Bali_Maha, @Jessifer to start, and so many out from there) and got so inspired about the possibilities of teaching, if only I could let go of what I had always done and be a little brave about trying new things and opening up.  First, I tried making my own book of original sources (you can read all about how badly that went here). Then I started using an OpenStax textbook for American Government and an e-IR textbook for International Relations.  Began teaching on the CUNY Academic Commons.  Starting experimenting with student blogging.  Adopted a no attendance policy.  

Now, each semester, I make changes.  Some work well, and some are downright failures, but on the whole, opening up my teaching has been an awesome adventure.  I was explaining to a colleague that none of this comes naturally to me (20 years of Catholic School leaves a lot of marks, and my disciplinary training was quite conservative as well)-, and he asked a logical question- why do I bother with it?  And the answer was so simple I was surprised I hadn’t articulated even to myself before- what I was doing before didn’t work well for me, or for students. And a lot of these things seem to work much better. I’m so much happier with what I’m doing and how students are doing!  So it’s worth the effort of switching things up.  

This semester’s tweaks towards opening up my teaching:  choose your own adventure and self-grading. I was really inspired by a presentation Benjamin Hass gave at the CUNY SUNY OER Showcase in 2019 about how they let their classes decide what their course will cover, and how students fill a notebook with their thoughts for their grade, which is determined solely by the amount of the notebook they filled.  At the same time, I was reading a lot about ungrading.  Arley Cruthers’ thread on planning a course and assignments with students sent me over the edge on this being the semester that I absolutely have to get more student choice involved, so instead of required assignments, I’ve got 13 options, worth a total of 150 points.  Some require students to be in class, like our Congressional Simulation or the midterm and final exams, but most are meant to be done outside of class. Some are individual, some have the option to collaborate, and some compile individual contributions into a group collaboration.  And there are two new ones for this semester that offer a lot of choice- a design your own option (have never done this- who knows if anyone will even want it?) and a book review. And the biggest change is expanding self-grading to all of the written assignments. I’ll include a short checklist of requirements with each assignment, and ask students to write a paragraph explaining how many points they assign themselves.  If it works, it should alleviate grade-based anxiety and create better student learning. Who knows?  If you’re curious about what we’ll be trying this semester, you can check out my teaching page.

And I just realized, I’ve inadvertantly (somewhat) COVID19-prepped my course!  I already stopped awarding any points for attendance, and there are more than enough options/points that students can opt not to take the midterm/final exam (so if they feel like they are sick and need to stay home from class, they can, without worrying that they’ll miss something on the test).  There’s also one option inspired by an assignment used by Dr. Brielle Harbin to cover one day of class for our collaborative note-taking document, so those who miss class can catch themselves up.  If we get an official close-school order, I’ll make further adjustments, but as it stands, there is enough flexibility for students to make their own choices for what is best for them.  Pedagogy of Care for the win, again.

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