The Blank Syllabus

I got this strategy from Chris Walsh, of Boston University, who detailed it in his talk at the 2013 MLA Convention. He calls it the "blank syllabus," but it's not really blank at all. What is left blank are some of the assigned readings. In Chris's words, the students fill these blanks "by completing the first writing assignment, which requires them to choose a reading from the course anthology and to write a paper that advocates for making their selection required reading for the class."

I tried this out last spring in an American literature survey course. I wanted to have the students read one prose piece and one poem for each class period. I chose the prose pieces, but left an empty slot for a poem for each class. Each student's first writing assignment (due in the course's third week) was to find a poem in the class's assigned anthology and argue for its inclusion on the syllabus. After receiving these essays, I filled in the syllabus with the chosen poems; each student was tasked with leading the discussion on the day that his or her poem was discussed.

Walsh notes that this strategy can be modified due to the size of the class--I had under twenty students which made it pretty straightforward. With a larger class, Walsh suggests having the students vote for which selections actually make the syllabus.

In all, I found the strategy very successful, as it involved the students in the course's design from the start of the term, got them to actually spend some time with the anthology apart from the assigned readings, and encouraged them to discover what sort(s) of poetry they might actually prefer to read.  -DG


Source: Click here for a pdf of Walsh's more detailed explanation of his idea. 

Paired Reading Responses

With each reading assignment, assign two students to be the designated responders. A day before in-class discussion of the reading, one student must post a brief response to or critique of the reading on the class’s online space. The second student must post a brief response or rebuttal to the first student’s piece. All students are required to read both commentaries before class.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 71.

Advance reading handout

With each reading assignment, hand out a sheet to each of your students that includes an Invitation, a set of Reading Questions, and a set of Discussion Questions. The Invitation sets out why you care about the reading and why you believe your students should care. This can be three or four sentences that orient your students ahead of their reading. The two or three Reading Questions should guide your students as they read, help them identify what’s important, and underline what they should understand by the end. The Discussion Questions prompt students to think about the main issues and implications in the reading, and prepare students to come to class ready to talk about them. You can choose to collect these sheets and/or grade them if you wish.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 65-70.