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Kit Nicholls, of Beacon, is director of The Center for Writing at Cooper Union in New York City and co-author of Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything.
Your co-author, William Germano, invited you to help with the book. What intrigued you about the idea?
I love thinking about teaching and talking to other people about teaching. Co-writing a book about teaching was the absolute right way to do it, because you can’t teach solo. That would just be a person sitting in a room yelling, which is how a lot of people teach, unfortunately. But the students have to be collaborators with you. The only other books out there about the syllabus are very dry, such as: “This is what goes in this section.” So it was fun to have a chance to unpack it.
Why don’t students read the syllabus?
If you’re creating a piece of writing — and that’s what a syllabus is — and nobody wants to read it, there’s a problem. What do you have to do? Step One is to write for an audience; engage your readers. You also need to realize that the syllabus isn’t about what the teacher is going to do; it’s about what the student is going to do. Too often, the syllabus looks like a set of directives. The properly conceived syllabus is a plan for a set of collaborative tasks. It should be designed to orchestrate a set of possibilities, rather than a set of firm goals that you’ll be tested on. The teacher isn’t a magician who’s going to pull the rabbit from a hat; the students will do that.
I teach at Marist. Should I explain the syllabus on the first day of class?
The first day of class is an opportunity to start working, and to set students up for the idea that the classroom is a practice room. That’s why we have a chapter with wacky references to the sociology of jazz improvisation. Day One is your opportunity to show the students, “I’m going to give you lots of cool, weird stuff to do, and you’re not going to know where it’s going yet.” That will motivate them to look at the syllabus, because by the end of the first day, they’ll be saying, “What is this thing that we’re doing? And where does it go next?”
Is it possible to give away too much information?
It goes back to pulling the rabbit from the hat. The syllabus shouldn’t translate as, “As the teacher, I already know all of this; I’m going to grill you on it, then it’s over.” For students to fall in love with the subject, they need to discover there’s unfinished business in that discipline.
What’s the plural of syllabus? Syllabuses? Syllabi?
Either. It doesn’t matter. Even though it sounds like a fancy ancient Greek word, it wasn’t invented until the 15th century when a scribe made a mistake copying an edition of Cicero’s letters [by misreading sittybos, which means label or table of contents]. So the word has this feeling of the ivory tower, but it reflects how constructed everything about university life is.