Looking up through a nautilus-shell-shaped staircase made of warm wood and dark metal. Through the center shines the blank sky, visible through triangular panes of glass that come together in the center of the stairs. Does the spiral continue into infinity, or is that just our imaginations?

Syllabus-as-Metaphor

 Published on August 22, 2019 /  Written by /  Reviewed by Sarah Honeychurch and Adam Heidebrink-Bruno and Chris Friend /  “Nautilus de madera y metal” by Camilo Andrés Ayala Monje; licensed CC-BY-NC 3.0 /  0

We can help — or risk harm — with the metaphors our syllabi embody, and so to serve students as best we can, we must choose our metaphors — and choose them well.

The ongoing discussion of syllabi on and around Hybrid Pedagogy includes tacit metaphorical framing. When Sara Goldrick-Rab suggests adding basic needs statements to syllabi to validate and mitigate the impact of precarity, she speaks of syllabus-as-support-system. When Sean Michael Morris and Jesse Stommel consider how syllabi enshrine laptop and other device policies, they imply syllabus-as-accessibility-feature. When Ben Van Overmeire suggests leaving a portion of the syllabus blank, he assumes syllabus-as-co-creative-space. When Remi Kalir, as part of his ongoing #marginalsyllabus project, invites us to collaboratively annotate syllabi, he also invites us to adopt a syllabus-as-conversation-starter mentality. (I could go on.) I love each of these metaphors for the ways they push our thinking on pedagogical possibility and responsibility, but I wonder whether metaphor consciously structured this collective thinking. To the extent they were unconscious, tacit, implied, there will be value to bringing them into conscious and explicit design. If we see our syllabus as a site for resistance and liberation, we will treat them that way. Sara, Sean, Jesse, Ben, and Remi offer us specific instrumental moves, each in service to the goals aligned with its corresponding metaphor, but taken separately and left tacit, those metaphors risk limiting our thinking even as they extend it. Because what you do with a thing will always be in part a function of what that thing is — and that is the domain of metaphor.

In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson argue that our language is suffused with metaphor, and that they are more basic building block of cognition than linguistic flourish: “Metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.” We understand a concept like ‘argument’ by mapping onto it other experiences. Consider two metaphorical constructs Lakoff and Johnson highlight: argument is war and argument is dancing. In their words, “The very systematicity that allows us to comprehend one aspect of a concept in terms of another … will necessarily hide other aspects of the concept.” As they say, if argument is war, we: defend our position, win or lose, surrender, shoot down a weak point, separate into opposing sides, engage in violence. If argument is dancing, we: see participants as performers, value balance and form, collaborate. While neither encompasses the full range of human experience with regard to argument, they remain mutually incompatible. And they have direct bearing on classroom practice — if I am to choose between the two, the choice is clear.

There is good news hidden in this beautiful mess: when these orienting metaphors enter our conscious awareness — when they become a choice, we can exercise and expand our ability to see the adjacent possible. If argument can be dance, it can be partnership in pursuit of truth. This new frame, arising out of the thinking in this article, once again entails a relationship of collaboration, but also foregrounds a particular common purpose not necessarily present in the dancing metaphor. To mutual aid, patience, and agency, this metaphor adds concern for the truth, and for the care of those struggling alongside us to find and create it. If this is how we choose to view argument, we will practice critical belief in equal measure to critical doubt. We will take affirmative steps to verify our understanding of others’ contributions. This is what it means to live by our metaphors, what we have to gain. What happens when we do the same for syllabi?

Not a Contract, Not Not a Contract

What happens is you quickly encounter a dominant frame, the center against which the above writers (at least implicitly) strive: syllabus-as-contract. One prominent article from College Teaching, cited 249 times according to Google Scholar at the time of this writing (an increase of 27 since this article’s first draft) claims, “The first purpose of a syllabus — either explicitly or implicitly — is to serve as a contract between the instructor and the student.” Given how commonplace this perspective is among educators, might syllabi be literal, rather than figurative, contracts? If so, we would expect a few things: First, that courts would have established precedent relating to syllabi as contracts, which according to law professor Kent D. Kauffman, is not the case: “No court has ever declared that a syllabus is a contract.” Second, given the potential stakes, we would expect educators to be knowledgeable in relevant aspects of contract law as they apply to syllabi (or to consult a lawyer instead). This, too, is not the case.

What’s left is an as-if: we treat syllabi as if they are contracts for instrumental reasons to serve a higher, “in order to,” (not unlike the authors at the top of this article). Kauffman himself pivots to this claim after his “contrarian” analysis, “Teaching and learning can be improved with a syllabus-as-contract mentality.” Regarding a syllabus as a contract may foreground an affirmative relationship of mutual responsibility, alignment of interests, and shared purpose between educators and students. For Kauffman, it also promotes collaboration, and educators’ advance consideration for how classroom policies might be (mis)interpreted. It is easy to endorse these potential benefits of the contract metaphor to the extent they serve these pedagogical goals — and yet this metaphorical construct clearly has drawbacks.

While a contract assumes some aligned interests, it also assumes those interests are separate: “me and you” instead of “us,” like the argument is war metaphor. From this separation of parties, we risk approaches that — intentionally or not — primarily protect educators from students (the reverse is less likely so long as syllabi are created unilaterally by instructors). As Mano Singham writes, “the result of such an attitude is that we end up viewing all students as potential courtroom adversaries.” How often do teachers take contract law (see above) into account when composing syllabi? What would be some implications if they did? Take, for example, competency. Our ability to enter into any contract is suspect when there is too much of a power differential between parties; does that mean educators must mitigate that differential before the syllabus can become binding? (Which begs the question of how.) Would this perspective void the obligations for a student experiencing reduced competency due to mental health or other crisis when the terms of the “contract” were “accepted”? What of high school students, required by law to attend school, and unable to enter contracts as minors? Or warranties: how should educators be responsible for whatever remedies apply if instruction doesn’t match what was promised? No syllabus I have seen even includes such a promise. Some syllabi do include clauses that declare they are subject to change, but that authority stems from the power imbalance that informed the question above. If a syllabus is a contract, it should be as unacceptable for a professor to unilaterally change its terms as it would be for a bank to unilaterally change the terms of a loan.

Practically speaking, an attempt to expand syllabus-as-contract thinking to its logical conclusions — beyond partial metaphor — would break our education system as we know it. But there are deeper reasons to resist a totalizing metaphor — reasons that go to the heart of the purpose of education: I worry that Singham is right in his diagnosis: “It is likely that the authoritarian syllabus is just the visible symptom of a deeper underlying problem, the breakdown of trust in the student-teacher relationship.” While there are ways contracts require trust between parties, it is largely trust in institutions and enforcement, not trust in relationships among individuals. Otherwise, who needs a contract? Otherwise, what good is one?

One last cautionary note before transitioning to alternatives: it is possible to engage with syllabus-as-contract metaphor critiques at a surface level while leaving untouched the deeper conflicts, as David Gooblar does in a Chronicle Vitae Article. Students’ choice not to read a syllabus may make sense given our collective experience with End User License Agreements. His solution, however, isn’t to expand our conception of what a syllabus is (and therefore does); it is to modify surface features to improve readability by packaging the syllabus as a comic: “It may be important to create a legalistic contract … but I think Wendler is right to argue that we shouldn’t expect them to read such a contract very closely.” The message: Your syllabus need not look like a contract to be one. For Gooblar, “the chief rhetorical purpose of the syllabus [is] to convince your students to buy in to your course…” which casts educators as salespeople and syllabi as a (disempowering) marketing tool.

Alternatives Un-Obscured

Adam Heidebrink-Bruno’s Hybrid Pedagogy article is already a nudge to widen our thinking about what syllabi might be: “A syllabus should be a manifesto that serves as a founding document detailing the rights of the student and the pedagogy of the classroom.” Exploring the syllabus-as-manifesto metaphor is a worthy cause: we should have strong opinions about our teaching, and they should show up both implicitly and explicitly within syllabi, reasonable entailments of the syllabus-as-manifesto metaphor. It also, however, raises questions of authorship and consensus-building. Is it the instructor’s manifesto? Or can it belong collectively to the members of the course? If so, by what process? What of manifestos’ rhetorical mission — (when) should syllabi aim to convince, persuade, convert, incite? The second (easily overlooked) metaphor in that sentence, syllabus-as-classroom-constitution, substantially overlaps with syllabus-as-manifesto (both foreground what Adam Heidebrink-Bruno calls “a public declaration of values, beliefs, and priorities”) but arrives at it from an opposite direction — it would seem strange for a constitution to have sole authorship. And yet, there are ways I do want syllabi to represent disparate and diverse voices, structurally provide for inclusion, and establish a balance of powers (among other likely constitution-like things).

As with argument, once we begin to recognize dominant and implicit metaphors, it becomes easier to explore nascent ones. For me, a syllabus-as-playlist metaphor is promising: We share playlists with friends and/or loved ones. They can be a source of joy, a way of building or deepening a relationship. Playlists are acts of curation —  intentional inclusion plus intentional exclusion. They reflect both creator and intended audience. Like the songs they contain, playlists can be simultaneously lighthearted, serious, playful, exploratory. Sometimes they resist classification. Sometimes they unabashedly include Taylor Swift. These are metaphorical entailments we (may) want our syllabi to embody (depending on subject matter) even if there are other aspects of playlists we wouldn’t embrace — perhaps frivolity or disposability. That said, I find it significantly more difficult to generate distasteful entailments of the syllabus-as-playlist metaphor than I do the syllabus-as-contract metaphor. Which is the point — not all metaphors are created equal in their potential to influence (positively and negatively) classroom and larger institutional culture.

Other metaphorical frames for syllabi I imagine to have various and varied appeal include: syllabus-as-FAQ (wisdom in response to crowd-sourced curiosity), syllabus-as-welcome-mat (before you make yourself at home there should be some foot-wiping to avoid tracking in mud), syllabus-as-course-epigenetics (this document will sit outside of and inflect the rest of what we do, and can be modified as a result of our classroom experiences), syllabus-as-article-abstract, syllabus-as-map-and-legend, syllabus-as-curriculum-vitae, syllabus-as-operating-manual, and the one I mentioned above, syllabus-as-field-for-liberatory-resistance (I can hope). When do syllabi act as threats (intentionally or not)? When should a syllabus be a warning?

A syllabus is none of these things — to think of this as that presupposes this isn’t that. And so we are free to take from each metaphor that which is of use, including from the contract metaphor — and to leave the rest. This is bricolage at its best.

Meta-Metaphors: The Infinite Syllabus and the Ecological Syllabus

There’s a persistent question that’s nagged me since I first considered this topic — what’s inside the course, what isn’t, and what is the role of a syllabus in delineating the two? This question evokes consideration of the larger metaphors at play (courses are spaces), of which syllabi play a contributing part. For the course, I think that boundary is created (or instantiated) largely through the object of a syllabus-as-contract. Reading these books, listed on the syllabus? Inside, a part of, necessary for the course—ignore the mandate and you will be sanctioned, graded down. Reading those books, not listed? Extracurricular, supplemental, separate from the course—maybe encouraged if relevant; not required. James P. Carse’s book Finite and Infinite Games has a useful way of describing this dichotomy. There are games we play for the purpose of bringing about their end (and often choose winners and losers): chess, football, debate; and there are games we play for the purpose of extending play: a friendship, a community, if one is lucky (though it shouldn’t be a matter of luck), a career. Syllabi acting as contracts seem to place learning into the first of these categories: they seek the fulfillment of their terms, and nothing more, through mutually agreed-upon rules. Offer, acceptance, consideration — anything not included in these is by definition extra-contractual. What you do for credit cannot also be done not-for-credit. No syllabus can obligate students to do one damn thing the day after course grades are due. And so, if our missions are larger than our courses, obligation is insufficient — since syllabi intended to act only as contracts carry within themselves their end.

When we transcend this single, dominant, and finite metaphor, we invite students toward a more beautiful relationship with learning (and probably with each other). As Carse says, “the joyfulness of infinite play, its laughter, lies in learning to start something we cannot finish.” The key lies in new metaphorical constructs that do better at fostering desire, autonomous action, community, critical imagination. Something as simple as a “Suggested Reading” list in addition to a “Required Reading” list moves toward recognition and affirmation of students’ agency and interest — a syllabus that suggests acts as something other than a contract. When we see learning as an infinite game, we open greater possibilities for students to act adjacent, tangential to, beyond explicit directives in pursuit of goals nevertheless relevant to our learning community — perhaps vitally so. A student might modify an assignment, create their own, or refuse one that might be ethically questionable (and explain why). The rules of infinite games can be changed on the fly. This shift shrinks the risk of de-emphasizing aspects of education that resist reduction or enumeration. As an educator, I may hope my students have (and keep track of) authentic experiences of anger, indignation, outrage, determination in response to injustice, but could you imagine a syllabus mandating the same? “By the end of the course students will have been angry in response to course readings a minimum of five times.” Could you imagine grading students on anger as an “outcome”?

Of course a syllabus can’t mandate a particular emotional experience, and students can’t be graded on it, but the thought experiment raises an important question. How much of our objection comes not from each element separately but rather from the interaction between the two: requirement plus method of enforcement? I cringe inwardly thinking about penalizing a student’s grade if they don’t “feel angry” enough times, while I merely wonder about the effect of this mandate if left unenforced. Here is what this surfaces: what any course object is — a syllabus, an assignment, a discussion — will necessarily depend on a wider ecosystem. A syllabus’s laptop policy will influence experiences of accessibility will inflect the way a course supports or thwarts the need for belonging will induce enthusiasm or its opposite may influence the laptop policy (if the educator is open to course correction). Explicitly centering a course on “love/hope/caring pedagogy” might raise students’ expectations for conscientious syllabi, risking disappointment, resentment, and doubt if those expectations are unmet; in turn impacting students’ way of being in the course. By default a syllabus will act as a letter of introduction: students’ first encounter with instructor, course policies, and/or the field of study as a whole. It will not occupy that role if you write a standalone letter to serve that purpose in advance of a syllabus. Each of these scenarios is an example of interdependencies at work, whether by feedback loop, presence or absence, or (altered) expectation. They embody the idea that classrooms are complex spaces — ecosystems — that require humility in the face of something chaotic, forever beyond the grasp of our limited understanding. Kaufmann believes the syllabus-as-contract metaphor pushes us to consider the impact of course policies in advance. That is right and good, but if we have been students of ecology, we will know in our bones that our considerations are incomplete. With our humility we will hold them lightly. Even as we plan for contingencies, we will be open to that which can only ever be emergent.

I would like to propose two final metaphors—not a way of seeing a syllabus in particular, but ways of seeing that pertain to syllabi, course assignments, language practices — to teaching writ large. First, that teaching, learning, and education are each their own fractal coastline, complex at any scale of observation — how beautiful a (little t) truth! We are called to be self-reflective at as many of these scales as we can manage, while simultaneously developing our capacity for reflection at new, dazzling scales: macro, micro, nano, cosmic. Second, the whole of our pedagogy is an invitation — from the “first word of our syllabus” to the way we respond to course evaluations (or emails years after the fact) — for those around us to step into a new way of being in the world. If we can hold these two metaphors in our minds and shape our syllabi accordingly, I think they will come out just fine.

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