Today's guest blogger is Jason Dockter, who teaches first-year composition at Lincoln Land Community College. He completed his Ph.D. in English Studies at Illinois State University. His research focus is primarily on rhetoric/composition, with specific interests in online writing instruction and multimodal composition.
I primarily teach online writing courses, and for the first time in four years, I am teaching a face-to-face (f2f) class.. Returning to the physical classroom, I realize that the students I’ll have in class are far different than the students I worked with four years ago. They have different expectations, different needs, and different experiences that they’ll all bring to the classroom. These thoughts bring me back to the document that helps to communicate the teacher’s vision of the class to the students: the syllabus. As I prep for the beginning of the spring semester, I keep coming back to a gripe that I hear from my colleagues who teach f2f: students don’t read the syllabus, or if they do read it, they don’t refer back to it for answers to their questions. However, I don’t think the format for a traditional, print-based syllabus goes far enough in creating a text that helps students to comprehend and retain the information presented within a syllabus. As Traci Gardner pointed out in her blog post on redesigning a course syllabus with a graphic, students not reading or retaining information on a syllabus is very much a rhetorical problem. In fact, even if students have read the syllabus and retain the info, there’s a realistic possibility that the meaning students made from the syllabus doesn’t align with the meaning the teacher intended.
Many online teachers are creating alternatives to a print-based syllabus; do a YouTube search for “video syllabus”, and you’ll see what I mean. This semester, I am designing a multimodal syllabus that is designed to utilize the affordances that a web text can provide in hopes that the syllabus will better communicate with my students, helping them to more accurately make meaning that is similar to my intended meaning. Also, I want to start the semester off by challenging the existing notions that students have of what a text is—what writing is—to demonstrate that writing, and the writing they can expect to do, can look differently from what we’re all used to seeing.
Context for a Syllabus
While a traditional syllabus is developed to function within the very specific context of a f2f class, the teacher presenting that syllabus is an embedded part of that text in that situation. The teacher’s delivery of the syllabus is a crucial component and a unique aspect of the text that helps students to shape a particular meaning from the syllabus. Within the moment, a teacher and student collaborate to develop a shared understanding of the course syllabus. Creating and emphasizing this context is one reason why an unofficial “syllabus day” exists at the beginning of many courses. A usual moment during this “syllabus day” is the refrain to review the syllabus later that night or over the next few days.
However, if students revisit the syllabus on their own, the teacher is no longer a part of that text, and students are left to reinterpret the syllabus alone, developing their own understanding of the complexities of assignments and policies. A syllabus that embraces a web-based design and emphasizes modes beyond the linguistic and spatial can better help to communicate course information to students. Not only is the text design more accessible because of the familiarity students have with web-based texts, but the additional modalities will provide additional ways through which meaning can be made.
An additional bonus for me, within the context of my first-year composition course, is that I can demonstrate for students the idea of remixing texts. My multimodal syllabus can be compared to a traditional, print-based syllabus, providing the impetus for a beginning discussion about multiple modes, design, remix, rhetoric, rhetorical choice, and even genres of writing.
The Multimodal Syllabus
The multimodal syllabus can take on many different forms, but the key aspect of this format is to avoid relying primarily on a single modality as the communicator of information. For me, moving beyond a paper-based syllabus provides opportunities to create something that lives where most of today’s information is shared: online. My syllabus is presented through the blog medium, as that’s a format that I am familiar with (but a multimodal syllabus could be designed through a variety of technologies such as Prezi, Thinglink, Softchalk, ExplainEverything). Perhaps other publishing formats would work better or provide greater opportunity to emphasize additional modalities, but my own and my students’ familiarity with blogs, essentially basic websites, requires little explanation about how to navigate the site. This familiarity will be helpful for students, allowing them to concentrate on the information. Familiarity with blogs makes the navigation obvious, but this can also be introduced to students through a post that quickly explains the text and its design.
Within my multimodal syllabus, I am using the same headings that I would within my paper-bound syllabus: Instructor Info and Contact Info, Course Info, Course Assignments, Grading Breakdown, Class Policies, and a Course Schedule. The blog platform works especially well because I can categorize the content areas of the syllabus by assigning each a unique category name and subsequent tag, such as Instructor Information, Class Policies, etc. These categories create specific links to unique areas of the text, which will be convenient for students who might want to review a specific policy without having to search through the entire syllabus to locate it. Or, the use of tags lets me tie multiple components of the syllabus together with a common tag. This easily lets students find everything associated with a specific tag or category, so they do not have to search through the entire text.
Perhaps most excitingly, the blog format enables me to easily integrate other technologies, such as video, audio, and image elements into each post. Through this variety of media, my syllabus embraces a variety of communication modalities. I opt to incorporate alphanumeric text in addition to a video because students have the choice of reading the info or watching and hearing it. While both information media communicate the same info, the choice is the student’s in terms of how they want to be presented with the information and how they want to engage with it.
Through this choice, students might gain knowledge of the instructor or the course that is unintended, but quite valuable. For instance, students may learn more about the instructor based upon the background of any videos recorded and shared (for instance, learning that an instructor enjoys working from a local coffee shop or a bit about an instructor’s interests based upon pictures that might hang in the background of her office). A student might not easily recall a specific policy from a cursory read of alphanumeric text, but that same student might recall how a teacher spoke of a policy from a familiar coffee shop on campus, prompting a recollection of the policy. The richness of multiple modes offers possibilities for students, and through these communicative possibilities, reading and retention of course information is more likely.
To see my syllabus, follow this link.
Here are the first two videos featured in the syllabus, which introduce me to students and explain how the blog syllabus works: