The syllabus that killed my self-esteem.


photo by Alamy I found at the Guardian site
(I am citing my pilfering)

“Comparison is the thief of joy” (Theodore Roosevelt; by way of Gregg Rogers)

which reminds me of….

Thou shalt not covet” (God; by way of years of Catholicness)

I was working on my first syllabus. I’d heard it would not be fun. It was for a freshman rhetoric and composition course at the university where I’m in my second year of teaching. The kitchen table was full of crap. I had piles of stuff. Most of it was made of paper and had words on it: a pile of new textbooks, a folder, a spiral notebook, the battered syllabi from my first year, a pen, my laptop, and a half-cup of cold coffee. Sitting closest to me was the text book I planned to use this semester. God. I sat there hoping I’d picked the right one. If I didn’t, the world would probably stop spinning and sweet, innocent freshmen would be damaged so badly they’d never drink again.

The syllabus I used last semester was designed by my department. So it wouldn’t work now that I’d gone feral and picked my own book. I also have a new teaching schedule; last time it was MWF classes but now it’s T-Th.  So I sat at the ready with my spiral notebook and my spiraling thoughts.  And a pen. The spiral notebook wasn’t even mine, really.  It was a middle school leftover from one of my daughters.  The cover had monkeys with wings and halos.  Angel monkeys.

I was at the table with my monkeys and notes from the first few days of classes from last semester. I also had the new text book. I started to scribble into the notebook in an attempt to get the first week onto the books. After I’d been at it for a couple hours I felt like I was making progress. Well. Kinda.

I was having the brain melt down I had in grad school all the time; I was doing four things at once. This time I was thinking about which papers students should write.  I was thumbing through the text.  I was finding readings online.  And I was having thoughts.  Lots of thoughts. This thinking lead to reading the book. I started with the regular chapters. Then I moved to the essays in the back of the book. Then I was onto more essays that had nothing to do with anything I’ll be teaching:  Did you know guys with no hair on their chests are called “smoothies?” There’s loads of bangin’ stuff in this book!

During this brain melt down I was unloading the dishwasher and feeding the dog. Crapfest – my rescue goldfish needed a water change. Had I eaten? Where was my son? Oh, there he was. I’d fed him while I was cleaning a spaghetti sauce explosion out of the microwave.

That was the first day.  This continued for a few weeks.

During this syllabus debacle, I had some ideas about what tidbits I’d add to my own syllabus; things from last semester. Things like: don’t bring a computer to class and don’t text.  Basic stuff.  But I needed some help.  A mentor.  Mentors.  Professors and lecturers who have gone before me. The Grand Syllabists.  That secret group with the special handshake and the peculiar nod.  I’ve heard some of the men even have funny mustaches.  So do some of the women.


Love this drawing! (Found it at nooutcasts.or)

So I went to the departmental website looking for syllabi samples.  And there they were.  Free samples.  Just like toaster strudel in a dixie cup at Wal-Mart.  A flavor for any schedule you may be teaching.  I downloaded a few freebies.  The Grand Syllabists would save the day.

I clicked one open and it started out great.  I enjoyed reading the opening paragraphs.  Damn!  I should take this class. This sounded like a great teacher.  I kept on with my gander and got to the schedule of classes.  This was very important.  How did this teacher parse out classes per topic?  What types of papers were assigned?  Did they have nap time built in?

My gander was gandering along just fine through the first week.  It looked pretty standard. But –  there it was – in the second week of class. Foucault. FOUCAULT?  What?  What! Are you kidding me? Is this freshman English?  I used to hear his name bandied about in grad school.  It wasn’t my area so I ignored it.  But now, years later, he popped up again.  Jesus.  Mary.  And Joseph.  Seriously?  Fou- Who?  How could I use one of his writings if I had no idea who he was?

What it really meant is that I’m an idiot and I should not be teaching.  Obviously.  I know his name.  Foucault. I can pronounce it as I took French for four years.  But that’s it.  I’m 49 years old and I wouldn’t know Foucault from F-Troop. I had to go to Wikipedia to get some basic information.  It didn’t really help.  Why didn’t I ever take a philosophy class? Damn the Grand Syllabists!

After a few hours of feeling like a complete loser I made myself step away from the table.  I tried to think of the two quotes at the top of this blog.  And I remembered something I’d heard from a peer at a recent departmental meeting.  He said he teaches to his strengths.  So, I focused on last year, which was good.  Nobody died.  I tried to think about all the good papers I read last year.  Obviously I taught my students something.  Either that or they were Grand Rhetors when they arrived.  Maybe it was a bit of both.

I finally got my syllabus done about two days before classes began.  And I’m happy with it.  I did find another sample that helped.  I’d say it was more my style.  I even stole an idea for a reading.  It’s about the use of the word “retard.”  I like doing provocative things in class.  We analyze TV commercials and song lyrics. I also sing.  Their ears are dying.

*  I fully support the use of Foucault.  More power to you.  Can you come give me a tutorial?