The Art of the Syllabus

A syllabus is an essential guide that communicates the what, why, when, and how for learning within an academic course. But can a syllabus be both a course outline as well as a work of art? The possibilities are certainly ripe for the picking. A good syllabus is one that is ‘contagious’, according to novelist, poet and educator Jesse Ball.

Ball expands this philosophy by saying:

“It is a very good thing if a syllabus is contagious. That is—if one of your students shows the syllabus to someone else, and if then that person is possessed by a sudden desire to take the class, or even to begin conducting research along parallel lines.”

To be possessed; drawn in by sudden desire; have an urge to share an experience with someone else and conduct further research, is parallel to the way a good work of art attracts and inspires us. We see a painting on the wall of a museum and it draws us in. We are guided by its form, function and content. This visual possession might lead us to investigate the context of the work and even make connections to similarly attributed work by that artist/movement or artwork from other cultures and eras that share specific thematic ideas.

Since the syllabus is the first document of exchange between a student and teacher, why not make it as compelling and as critical as a work of art? This is certainly what Ball does with his classes at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago where his syllabi encourage students to ditch their mobile phones in favor of long walks; become participants in the Franz Kafka Fancier Society of Chicago; and lucid dream. These course outlines are replete with creative requirements and reading lists that encourage students to think big, take risks and acquire agency for their learning. The visual arts do this very well via the Studio Habits of Mind.

If a syllabus can be defined as “a summary outline of a discourse, treatise, or course of study or of examination requirements,” then visual artists have been creating syllabi since antiquity. Take the Narmer Palette (c. 3200-3000 BCE) from 1st Dynasty Egypt, which has been interpreted as a treatise and guideline describing the dynamic and divine power of a king. The stone palette (typically used for applying makeup) depicts Narmer, who some historians suggest is also known as Menes, uniting Upper and Lower Egypt into one kingdom. The engraving features some of the earliest examples of hieroglyphics, as well as canonical forms for depicting Egyptian gods and kings. There is lots of room for debate as to whether Narmer (whose identity is still unclear) should get the credit for unifying Ancient Egypt. Whatever the case may be, it can be surmised that the stone palette served as an outline that reminded contemporary citizens of the king’s divine prowess.

Another ancient syllabus is the Law Code Stele of King Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE), a tall stone stele with over 300 laws inscribed using cuneiform script. The script describes an action and the resulting consequence of that action, such as ‘an eye for an eye’ (later appropriated in the Bible). These are requirements of legal and moral conduct that were known throughout Babylonian society. These are ancient ‘course expectations!’

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George Maciunas, Fluxus Manifesto, 1963

Modern and contemporary artists have taken initiatives to define their objectives, goals and contemplative statements of purpose by putting pen to paper.

The Fluxus artists’ instructive prompts read like course materials and assignments that one might see within a creative syllabus. Artist manifestos, such as the ones written by the artists from the Bauhaus and Fluxus movements, and Sister Corita Kent’s 10 Enduring Rules for the Creative Life are types of syllabi. The artist duo Gilbert and George believed in the concept of ‘Art for All,’ which demystifies the oft-abstract and erudite relationship  between the viewer and the artwork. According to them this esoteric art is “decadent and a cruel denial of the Life of People.” Their first manifesto titled The Laws of Sculptors (1969), sought to amend and re-purpose the academic and institutional ideas that defined the medium of sculpture, which they felt was stifling to the growth and development of contemporary artists. They did so in a manner that expressed their sense of humor and challenged the status quo:

“1. Always be smartly dressed, well groomed, relaxed, friendly, polite and in complete control.

2. Make the world believe in you and to pay heavily for this privilege.

3. Never worry, assess, discuss or criticize but remain quiet respectful and calm.

4. The Lord chisels still, so don’t leave your bench for long.”

In his essay titled “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture,” Adam Heidebrink-Bruno (2014) states that “a well-written syllabus should prove to be a useful educative artifact, embedded with rich cultural and political meaning worthy of much time and contemplation.” Approaching the syllabus in a manner that breaks through the status quo of syllabi –a banal listing of authoritative expectations, grading policy/rubrics, and the mention of office hours as an afterthought to name a few– provides students and teachers with an artifact that serves as a mission statement for co-creating a productive learning environment. With a set of understandings that are encouraging and expressively stated the educator is setting up the tone for a give and take with their students. Starting out the class with a collaborative discussion about a classroom bill of rights would enable students and teachers to define the framework of their learning and behavior throughout the course. Being that it is a bill of rights, these ideas can be amended over the course of time if need be and if it is mutually agreeable to everyone in the class.

A syllabus, like education, is an artifact in flux and should develop and get amended over time. It should reflect the interests of the teacher, while opening the students up to possibilities to go above and beyond the required course content. The syllabus doesn’t have to be a conceptual document, but the more it encourages critical thinking and suggests diverse avenues of exploration, the more contagious it will be. And that might just lead to more engaged (and awake) students! It would be interesting to have a whole course around the ‘art of the syllabi,’ where throughout the semester, the tables get turned and the students create the guidelines, suggested readings, assignments and evaluations for themselves.


References, Notes, Suggested Reading:

Ball, Jesse. 2016. Notes on My Dunce Cap. New York: Pioneer Works Press.

Baker, Harriet. “10 game-changing art manifestos.” Royal Academy, 10 April 2015. https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ten-game-changing-manifestos

Heidebrink-Bruno, Adam. “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture.” Hybrid Pedagogy, 28 Aug. 2014. https://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-critical-approach-classroom-culture/