I arrived home from Ohio just in time this week to dive into semester prep, spending the last few days revamping syllabi for my Keene State classes, which start next week. Syllabus-prep is a tedious and mentally demanding task: you have to maintain both a long- and short-view in order to figure out the precise steps your students will take as they move from the proverbial “blank page” that greets them during Week One toward the 15- to 20-page research paper that’s due by Week Fifteen. And yet, despite the mental energy it takes to craft a well-planned syllabus, it’s one of my favorite aspects of teaching: a strong foundation that reflects my most optimist hopes as I stand on the brink of another daunting term.
Some of my colleagues plan their semesters far less meticulously than I do, distributing single-page syllabi that are infinitely less detailed than my five- to fourteen-page (!!!) ones. I’ve always preferred a full-disclosure approach: students in my classes know from day one exactly what’s due and when, how they’ll be graded, and other important factors they’d have to figure out gradually in other classes. A well-planned syllabus is a life-line for me, too: on any given day, I have a road map that tells me exactly what we need to do TODAY to get us to the finish line of “Week Fifteen”…and every year, there are times when even I, as instructor, completely forget what exactly we’re all doing here and why.
Once in a faculty training session, I described the process of teaching first-year students how to write a sustained research project as being like climbing a mountain with a group of small children. There will be many times when you’ll get sick of the seemingly incessant whines of “Are we there yet,” “I’m bored,” and “This is stupid!” As some combination of den-mother, cheerleader, coach, drill sergeant, and makeshift sherpa, you keep spurring your Little Darlings on with glowing descriptions of what awaits them at journey’s end: “Keep going! You can do it! You’ll be so proud once you’re finished!” This works, of course, when you yourself are feeling energetic and chipper…but at those moments when you’re exhausted, out of patience, and wondering why you thought climbing a mountain was a good idea, you’ll want nothing more than to push those Little Darlings off the nearest ledge.
A good syllabus, like a good map, helps guide the way when all hell is breaking loose. I’ve been teaching long enough to know that there will be times (usually around Week Five, a depressing lull I’ve named the Dark Night of the Semester) when even I, as instructor, will stare in disbelief at the ambition of my own syllabus: what the hell was I thinking when I decided to assign X or expect Y? But whereas my first-year students have probably never climbed the mountain of a 15- to 20-page research paper before, I’ve been there, done that. In my metaphoric role as den-mother, cheerleader, coach, drill sergeant, and makeshift sherpa, I know from experience that every writer eventually gets sick of her or his topic, every writer loses hope of ever finishing, and every writer has moments when simply facing another draft seems completely impossible…but those feelings pass. And so like a wise old matron who listens to a sobbing newlywed, pats her on the head, and sends her back to her hubby with instructions to kiss and make up, I know my job as a writing instructor is ultimately a matter of making sure my charges don’t give up. “Just keep trudging, and it will work out: I promise!”
And so these past few days, I’ve been contemplating the long view, at least from the perspective of a fifteen-week semester. While my soon-to-be first-year students are packing and preparing to move into their residence halls this weekend, I’ve been mapping the terrain, watching the weather, and otherwise scouting a 15- to 20-page long “mountain” my students don’t even know to start worrying about yet. The semester hasn’t even started, but already I know we have many long, tiring miles between here and there.