The first section of the book concerns constructing a syllabus. I'll mention some highlights and then discuss some themes that struck me as interesting.
Lang's advice about what to include on a syllabus — logistical information, contact info, description, 'promises' or learning objectives, course policies, bases for evaluation, academic honesty statement, disabilities statement, and schedule of tasks and readings — is solid and comprehensive, striking a reasonable balance (we discussed this challenge earlier) between laying out a clear set of expectations and approaching the syllabus like a legal document that kills student interest and motivation. And in general, Lang's recommendations reflect good academic practice and really can't steer you wrong.
Let me mention a few issues from this chapter that deserve some discussion:
- Whether to give students our home or cell phone numbers (pp. 3-4): Lang's recommendation is more or less "if you feel like it." I don't feel like it. One of the features of the faculty-student relationship that needs to be honored is that it is a professional relationship. We're not friends (yet), nor are we enemies. I tend to think of giving out my home phone number to all my students as crossing a boundary away from a professional relationship. And if accessibility is the issue, students can e-mail me, and I see my e-mail at least five times a day.
- Learning objectives have a structure (p. 7): Lang, referring to Bloom's learning taxonomy, points out that learning has a structure, with certain learning tasks (those associated with knowledge or comprehension, say) being prerequisites for more advanced learning tasks (those associated with analysis, synthesis, or evaluation, say). This is a good observation. I gather by now that including learning objectives (Lang encourages us to think of these as 'promises') on a syllabus has become the norm. But a list of learning objectives doesn't necessarily highlight the sequential nature of most learning — that most systems of knowledge have an internal structure and that you can't just jump in and master any randomly selected objective at the outset. I've taken to listing learning objectives on my syllabus in three categories: basic, intermediate, and advanced. I'd like to think my doing so conveys to students a message about the logical or cognitive structure of learning.
- Attendance: Take it or leave it? (p. 10): I like Lang's guideline here: 20+ students, don't take regular attendance. Does anyone out there follow a similar guideline?
- Short, low pressure writing assignments (pp. 13-14): Lang recommends brief weekly writing assignments with low significance for student grades as a way of keeping track of how well students are learning the course content and for keeping them engaged on a consistent basis. I favor this, too, believing that we often don't ask students to write frequently enough and there's too much 'put all your eggs in one basket' in some philosophy courses (i.e.,the students write a few medium-sized papers and a term paper, say, with large portions of their grades hinging on them). Students need to go through the early stages of philosophical writing more often: thinking through a question or prompt, consulting the texts, fashioning a thesis, etc. Pre-writing is what separates solid philosophical work from the mediocre, so I've come to the conclusion that short assignments help give students more pre-writing practice.
- The revelation — from teaching content to enabling learning (pp. 1-2): The simple observation that the question 'what or how should I teach?' is subordinate to the question 'what will students learn?' is still revolutionary, despite the fact approaching teaching in terms of student learning is now the central theme of almost all the literature on college teaching.
- Teachers as scholars of learning (p. xi): My favorite feature of the book thus far is how it makes use of the empirical literature on student learning. Lang wants to offer a "modest and realistic approach to teaching, one that has been tested and proven in the classroom as well as being informed by the research on teaching and learning in higher education," rather than a "comprehensive overview of teaching and learning theory." As I see it, this is exactly what most college-level instructors need: a scholarly but non-expert understanding of how people learn sufficient to enable them to put this understanding to use in their own teaching. College faculty need not all be scholars of teaching, but they can teach in an informed and scholarly way.