Introductions in the Syllabus-Free Course

The other day, I introduced the idea of Introductions. (What follows was originally part of that post--which I decided was too long to chew up in one sitting.)

Introductions are short things. They could be prose or images or something else. (Mightn't an Introduction to Beethoven have a few tunes in it?)

Introductions introduce a topic, idea or thing by giving some locating information. Introductions answer the question: "Where the heck does this thing sit in the network of stuff I might know about?"

For instance, I might like an introduction to:

  • Belgium,
  • Heidegger,
  • object-oriented programming,
  • chaos theory,
  • 20th-century American poetry,
  • theories of management.

Introductions could be a nice form & format for higher education. Higher ed desperately needs to go beyond the term paper, research paper, lab report, five-paragraph essay and Powerpoint presentation. New forms might include: the timeline, the small database, and the Introduction.

Hence Introductions could fit some neat pedagogical purposes: they wouldn't just be resources, they could be tasks. Indeed, in the framework of a course, it couldn't take that long to generate some decent introductions.

I sometimes advocate to teachers--in part purely for the purpose of raising some issues--the notion of the Syllabus-Free Course. That is: what if college courses did not have that defensive document saying what the course would and would not address, what books were trustworthy authorities on the subject, what fit within the field and what did not.

You are taking a course on English Literature. What the heck does the title mean? When I taught in an actual classroom, I used to call the first day "Explaining the Course Title" or "Reading the Syllabus." The syllabus usually sets the student straight on what the course title means: a syllabus is basically a title and then an explanation of its meaning.

Textbooks also shut down a lot of questioning. The Who-za-me Anthology of English Literature has decided what's fit to go inside. But in screening things in and out, the whole definitional process of the discipline is lost--whereas it should be core to what students learn. The idea shouldn't be "English Studies" is perfect as it is: it should be that the discipline was something else, was re-defined--and probably will be re-defined again.

What if students were asked to find out what was and wasn't included in this topic? To present definitions and debate them? The instructor could be an expert and could talk about why literature in English but not from England made up the field. The students could propose ways of slicing the topic that would be most interesting.

Introductions could be a wonderful part of such a course. (In this sense, Introductions are more of a tool in an arsenal than an end-in-themselves.)

Go break the course title down into some parts, you would in effect say to the students. How is a course called "Statistics" not just a math course? Why is it taught in a Psychology Department? What are the Big Things People Do With this "statistics" thing-a-me?

If courses used this strategy, a course on the novel could separate it from the epic--but only partially--and then dive into big novelists and kinds, and along the way students could find: "Jane Austen is what I care about in this whole Novel Game"--or Nabakov or Thackeray, for that matter.

Requirements could spell out how many parents and children and siblings and parts the Introduction should include. The "parents" and "children" are the predecessors and inheritors in a tree; the siblings are items that are similar-but-not-the-same; the parts are--well, just that. So:

  • How many novelists "begat" Nabokov? How many "influenced" novelists should be included?
  • How many similar novelists would be useful to locate VN?
  • How many of VN's novels need we know about to get a good picture?

(Indeed, a clever system might store this kind of information in such a way that users could get only as much or little as they liked.)

I actually think a lot of Introductions could be built up relatively quickly--and then re-used--by just a few courses in each department.

And then everyone in the world could access these Introductions to find their own way.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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