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Beautiful Syllabus Design

Is there any document more compelling than a good syllabus? I have a collection of favorites in a folder on my desktop and often daydream about following a particular professor’s list of screenings, readings and writing prompts to create my own individual class, a kind of private self-improvement gambit or—even better—a venture into some fantastic cinematic territory still unknown to me. A good syllabus is a treasured resource; a great syllabus, though, with its hints and errant connections, exudes the magic of possibility and epiphany. As an example, I remember reading my colleague Priya Jaikumar’s syllabus for a graduate seminar called “Stateless, Refugee, Migrant Cinemas” a few years back, for a class offered just after Donald Trump was elected. It traced shifts in global culture through cinema with a vital urgency that centered on this question posed by Priya in the opening paragraph: “To what extent is our difficulty in understanding the present crisis also a failure to understand how nationalism, globalization, and state power have always worked?” The films she had selected were radically disparate and global, and I sensed a profound need to see the world this way, far from my very American perspective. I had no doubt that I would be a different—and better—person after 16 weeks exploring the works she had curated.

Anyway, the syllabus is a document of potential, and as proof, I point you to one of my all-time favorite books, cartoonist Lynda Barry’s Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (Drawn & Quarterly, 2014), which details Barry’s first three years teaching in the Art Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Rather than write a book, Barry drew one, added a bunch of notes, then published it in the form of a black-and-white marbled-cover composition book. So, it’s a notebook about the relevance of notebooks, but more pointedly, it’s about the importance of “being present and seeing what’s there,” which is what Barry strives to evoke in her students, quoting her own college professor, Marilyn Frasca, from 1975. 

Syllabus includes the syllabi for several of Barry’s interdisciplinary art classes, but it also walks us through her thoughts on how to organize a class, how to unravel some of the inhibitions students arrive with (“I can’t draw!”) and tactics for reimagining some of the most basic elements of the classroom situation. For example, Barry takes attendance by having students sketch quick self-portraits on index cards. Like I said: The book is a treasure, a raucous, colorful celebration of teaching, learning and of the syllabus itself, which, in its best form, is a special invitation into a professor’s worldview.

Unfortunately, this model of the syllabus is in deep contrast with the template that faculties are given, which insists that we spell out every possible rule and assumes from the start that students are basically criminals or (only slightly better) customers. What is the policy on plagiarism? Cheating on exams, missing exams and making up exams? How about attendance? What are the learning objectives, outcomes and expectations? Assignments are even referred to as “deliverables,” and the final page, at least for faculty in my school, lists no less than a dozen resources for counseling, advocacy and support, all presented in quasi-legalese. As William Germano and Kit Nicholls point out in Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything (Princeton University Press, 2020), “The syllabus has become not just a document but a contested space, a space where we can see one of the central forms for planning and carrying out higher learning slipping away from faculty control and, for that matter, from its ideal point of origin: A good syllabus is borne of a real teacher’s experiences working with real students. Like any piece of writing, it will only be as good as its ability to communicate urgently and effectively with readers.” 

While the transformation of the syllabus into a legal contract is unfortunate, the drive toward more inclusive practices is a welcome recent shift. A useful list of these ideas comes from Barrie Gelles, who last year wrote a document titled “Embracing Radical Inclusivity: Practical Steps for Creating an Intersectional, Interventionist Syllabus” with the hope of prompting more intersectional syllabi. It includes sections on how to create classrooms that welcome gender-diverse and queer students, how to develop an antiracist pedagogy and how to attend to socio-economic differences among students. It’s terrific.

Turning to a more focused look at film studies, the introductory film 101 classes taught across the country are also shifting. A few quarters before the pandemic, Jasmine Nadua Trice, an associate professor in UCLA’s School of Theater, Film and Television, created an innovative online version of the school’s undergraduate “Art and Technique of Filmmaking” class, and at the same time, broadened the screenings beyond the Hollywood classics so often used to demonstrate foundational cinematic principles like mise-en-scene and sound design. Her version includes films, or clips from films, such as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You; Shireen Seno’s short film Shotgun Tuding; Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker; Jia Zhangke’s Black Breakfast; Carl Franklin’s Devil in a Blue Dress; Todd Haynes’s Far From Heaven; and even Ming Wong’s Life of Imitation, which is a double channel video installation based on Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life. It’s a beautiful document that stretches far and wide—but with such care and subtlety! 

That’s another element of the syllabus that can be so intriguing: the curatorial vision. I recently came across Aily Nash’s syllabus for a class called “The Operative Image.” Nash is an educator and a programmer, and she has taught classes at Bard, the City College of New York and elsewhere. While she has offered versions of the class several times and is currently preparing a film-curating course that she’ll teach at Dartmouth, she presented “The Operative Image” syllabus on the HASTAC website in 2017 with commentary on how and why she wrote the syllabus the way she did. For example, she notes, “The didactic language that connects the topics to the visual and textual materials are purposefully left off of the syllabus so that the creative thinking around these connections can be made by the students, and not the instructor.” This attention to what’s not said in a syllabus is so important in syllabus design, as is an awareness of voice and stance: How are we inviting students to engage with a set of images and ideas? I’ll add that in her commentary, Nash also explains that in the process of watching films by artists such as Harun Farocki, Ana Vaz and Kevin Jerome Everson, students will develop what she calls a “moving image analysis toolkit,” an idea that she adapted from Sara Ahmed’s notion of a “feminist toolkit” from Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life. Again, I’m intrigued.

Finally, Nash offers another technique that I love in a syllabus when she writes, “The works presented in class will provide a broad view on political moving-image making, considering experimental approaches to production, the performance and retelling of history, the personal perspective, witnessing, the forensic, postcolonialism, post-ethnography, representation, the Anthropocene, accelerated aesthetics, among other topics.” Wow! This is the overview list, where you draw students to a class by sketching its breadth and simultaneous focus. I’ve been studying film and video for decades, but you know what? I need to take this class! 

So, as we move into summer, when many of us are revising our syllabi for film classes in the fall, rather than being beaten down by the university’s requirements, we owe our students our best syllabi, invitations to thinking and viewing and making that are generous, poetic, complex and beautiful.

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