How I Hacked My Syllabus: Experiments in Teaching

“It’s in the syllabus!” Students hear this refrain from frustrated faculty everywhere when they ask questions about a course. But are we surprised that students don’t read syllabi that look more like “terms and conditions” agreements than roadmaps for learning? Or when students disengage from courses that are more focused on policing students than engaging them? A number of years ago, I began a process of rethinking my syllabus and my entire approach to teaching – a process that has been transformative for me as a teacher and, I hope, for my students. Along the way, I benefited from conversations with colleagues and discussions of pedagogy online (including Twitter), and I adopted approaches and assignments from others – the kind of sharing and collaboration embodied by the German Studies Collaboratory. 

Like many faculty, my syllabi developed over the years into ever-longer documents, with pages and pages of black text on white backgrounds, where I included policy after policy, all of which tried to anticipate any and all possible situations, such that the syllabus had become a document hostile to students. The “hacking” of my syllabus began with experimentation in the visual design. I first moved from black text on white backgrounds to a multi-color newsletter style with text boxes and images (my Nazi Germany and Divided Germany syllabi are included in the Collaboratory). In the COVID era, I have overhauled the visual design once again, to include different “memojis” as signposts for students and to add a StoryMap version of the syllabus in addition to the PDF version (see my fall 2020 and spring 2021 StoryMap syllabi). Even more important, I have shifted away from including a lot of policy statements focused on policing student behavior or outlining penalties, to a focus on providing information about resources to support student learning and empowering students to take control of their own learning. Indeed, in the most recent iterations of my syllabi, resources have taken center stage, coming even before the usual course information. My hope is to transform the syllabus from a “course contract” to an “invitation” to learning and “roadmap” for students.

As part of this “course correction,” I’ve also embraced flexibility and a pedagogy grounded in generosity, compassion, and respecting and trusting students – what Cate Denial calls a “pedagogy of kindness” and Kevin Gannon terms “radical hope.” Since fall 2017, I have adopted an approach to evaluating student work that many people call “ungrading,” something I first learned about from Jesse Stommel (for more, see Ungrading, an excellent new volume edited by Susan Blum). Rather than give letter or number grades for individual assignments, I provide feedback, ask questions, and make comments – in short, I try to engage the students as fellow historians. At the end of the semester, each student’s full body of work, including their self-evaluations, is considered in the determination of the final grade. While I weight assignments on the syllabus, the system also builds in some flexibility to acknowledge growth and improvement, as well as individual students’ strengths and weaknesses. This approach rests on a number of assumptions, including that students learn best when they are engaged with the material and supported and encouraged in their work, rather than subjected to rigid grading schemes and punitive policies developed in the name of “academic rigor” but largely focused on compliance. The goal is to put the focus on learning, not merely on getting a grade.

This approach is also intended to encourage risk-taking – from me in my teaching and from students in their learning. It has facilitated the introduction of more innovative and creative (and fun!) assignments, something different from the standard research paper required in so many courses. For example, with colleagues in our library’s Archives & Special Collections, I organized an “escape room” as a means to introduce students to the detective work that characterizes historical research. Avatar projects – inspired by the models developed by Heather Perry, Lauren Stokes, Edith Sheffer, and others – help to foster students’ historical empathy. In a number of courses, I have invited students to do “unessays,” where they present their research in creative projects, supported by an accompanying essay: for example, a student working on ocean waste produced a collage using trash; a student exploring the effects of mining on Indigenous American societies made an altar in the style of Day of the Dead altars; a student exploring Weimar nightlife did a painting with audio guide; a student working on the Nazi persecution of the Roma and Sinti created a graphic novel in the style of Persepolis; a Dance major translated her research about how Jewish refugees and partisans used the forest to survive during World War II into dance. 

Many of these assignments are public-facing, engage the community beyond campus, and foster collaboration among students. In my 2018 methods course, students went out into the community to do “free history lessons,” engaging passersby in conversations about local history. In 2019, students curated an exhibition about social justice in LMU history for the William H. Hannon Library using the University Archives. Each student researched an artifact from the archives, situating it in both the narrow LMU history and the broader historical context, wrote an exhibit label, recorded an audio guide, and then wrote an analytical essay; students also created a companion website that includes a virtual version of the exhibition and their final essays. In 2020, students conducted oral histories with individuals – clients, lawyers, and consultants – involved in the Loyola Project for the Innocent. In my 2019 Nazi Germany course, the main assignment was a timeline project, to which each student contributed ten entries about primary sources related to their chosen topic and then used those sources as the foundation for an analytical essay (the assignment is available in the Collaboratory); the class submitted the timeline project to the online journal Central Europe Yearbook, where it was published in the inaugural issue. In Divided Germany in Postwar Europe, students created a podcast with seven episodes featuring their research (the podcast assignment is also available in the Collaboratory). 

This transformation of my approach to teaching was well underway before COVID. But it became particularly important in the context of COVID and the spring 2020 shift to remote teaching – and more generally in the context of climate change, economic crisis, political polarization, and rising authoritarianism. The unique challenges of online learning, overlaid on the normal challenges of deeply engaging with complex historical issues, and doing it all in these specific times, made it even more important to be flexible and compassionate. That my spring 2020 course was already grounded in those values eased the abrupt and disruptive transition to remote learning for students. In the 2020-2021 academic year, when we were still online, I embraced even greater flexibility and choice. Students could participate in the class in different ways – for example, on Zoom or on Teams – without worrying about attendance policies, late penalties, or whether they had their cameras on. A choose-your-own-adventure research project (inspired by Courtney Thompson) gave students the ability to choose how to present their research – as a research paper, museum exhibition prototype, film treatment, opinion essay, creative project, or, as in one case, a cookbook with an essay about gender roles integrated with the recipes and accompanied by a series of TikTok cooking/baking videos. 

What began as a syllabus hack has evolved into a transformation of my teaching – for the better. I hope to create a learning environment grounded in trust, generosity, and community, where students are empowered to take control of their education, to follow their interests and to challenge themselves – and where they come to class excited to learn, not because they fear “losing points.” 

Elizabeth A. Drummond, Loyola Marymount University