I'll show you mine if you show me yours

Promoting a comment on a previous post to start off this post: I’ve been baking a lot of bread lately. I’d dabbled before, but I started getting a bit serious about yeast-wrangling. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the process, discussion boards and so on. The thing that gets (or should get) really clear really quickly is that a ‘recipe’ just barely gets you started. And you can talk about the biochemistry of yeast and lactobacilli and hydration ratios and such and it’s very illuminating. And you can provide guidelines about kneading and folding techniques and rates, and what the dough ought to look and feel like at various stages. All of that is awesome and a great start. But in relation to actually working up a dough it’s all ridiculously overelaborated and kind of beside the point. There are some things you want to mix together in rough rates, proportions and timings. There’s a way they should look and feel. You do stuff until you get that look and feel. What stuff you do exactly depends on what it felt like when you did that other thing a second ago. Maybe you fold, maybe you stretch, maybe you pull, maybe you push. And if you do that, and trust the process and set up the yeast to do its thing and don’t try to impose your will on it, you end up with delicious bread. If you don’t, you post frantic questions on discussion boards about why you didn’t get a crown or why your crumb is too dense or whatever.

Teaching is the same, except in this case the recipe is the syllabus. So when colleagues think they’ve communicated what their class is by sharing their syllabus, I just hang my head.

In my experience there’s a kind of porno for eggheads quality to syllabus-sharing. Ooooh, check out the size of that reading list! As I just said in commenting on Tim Burke’s recent post asking for feedback on his intriguing draft syllabus for a course called “Bad Research and Informational Heresies,” a reading list and its associated assignments are not very helpful to me for envisioning a class. Those parts are aspirational and maybe even outright fantasies, as I remarked there. All sorts of reading lists and assignments can work or not work, but that depends on the teaching and learning relationship, that is, not just the recipe but what teacher(s) and students do with it, which in turn depends on a complex of dispositions, expectations, practices and relationships that have to be worked through in each case and that can’t be forced based on preconceptions of what college/teaching/students are supposed to be. Is it possible to say anything useful about those variables in a syllabus? Well, I’ve been trying to gradually get better at that over the years – if you’re curious, here’s this semester’s World History syllabus:


Not much of a reading list, I’m afraid, but lots of other things I wonder what folks think of.



  1. I just went back and reread the post the “penis enlargement” spambot just ‘commented’ on (a hilarious juxtaposition, I shall leave it there to baffle and titillate the historians) and found this in a comment by me:

    “[W]hen I came out of grad school I thought a class was a reading list, a schedule of topics and a collection of assignments. That is, I thought a syllabus was an accurate description of what was going to happen. Pretty quickly I realized I could get a class to go like that for me, but not for the students. My syllabus is a first bid in a semester-long negotiation over the contours and process of a complex social relationship – a draft treaty, in a sense. Now I watch colleagues, administrations and accreditation bodies desperately adding verbiage to increasingly bloated syllabi to try anticipate, capture and control everything that actually does happen in classes and I have to laugh. The students don’t read them, because they know it’s all a fantasy and the real description of the class will be ongoingly emergent.”

    Not sure if this adds anything to the thought here – I like the idea of a draft treaty and of emergence, fwiw, and the joke about syllabus-bloat is still funny – but clearly it’s a topic that’s on my mind from time to time.

  2. Re: Man can not live by syllabi alone: A nice analog model to add to bread ans syllabi is mixing cement. It really underlines what Carl says about about time and timing. If you mix it by recipe alone, one of three things happens. A third of the time you added too much water, and you have to add cement; a third of the time you didn’t add enough water, and have to add some more; and a third of the time it looks for the first couple of minutes as if you have just the right amount of cement to water, and the next minute you suddenly find that — you either added too much or too little water. ad infinitum. In all three cases the process will result in mixing about twice the cement you need for the job. A desultory asymptotic approach is to be preferred. Well mixed cement has to be crept up on slowly (with pauses) and micro-incrementally. Bread and students are the same Students need little baptismal flourishes, for example, not syllabic deluges.

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