Coverage and exploration

It’s August, which means syllabus preparation. I have spent several fruitless days trying to wrestle a multi-tentacled blob of potential course content — films, pieces of music, music-historical and music-critical readings, etc. — into some kind of shape. Yesterday I had a conversation about syllabus-writing with a new colleague, and particularly the widespread expectation that along with the course policies, workload expectations, required texts, and other kinds of class-administrative stuff, a syllabus should provide a complete 15-week schedule of every topic and indeed every page read and measure listened to. This conversation gave me furiously to think.

Our students, products of the no-child-left-behind era of “accountability” and quantifiable results*, expect a full reckoning of everything they will ever be expected to do in a semester. In the years I’ve been teaching**, the typical syllabus has grown in size from a simple 1-3 page statement of aims and procedures to a swollen pseudo-legal document that assumes the character of a contract. The more suspicious or legalistic of our students come to treat every class like a drawn-out game of Simon Says and act like the prof can’t legitimately ask them to do anything that isn’t explicitly laid out in the syllabus. The syllabus-as-legal-contract suits the administrators, politicians, and parents who don’t trust the professors any more than the students do. And professors, including myself, go along with it, even if they don’t really like it.

And I don’t. But things will have to get a bit abstract before I can tell you why.

Let’s say that there are two basic attitudes towards (or models of) knowledge-acquisition in a class. There are doubtless more than two, but I’m just thinking about two today — actually a single and fairly simply opposition between what I’ll call “coverage” and “exploration.”

The experience of someone taking a college course might take one of two forms, which I can best explain through a map metaphor. (Another map metaphor.) Think of how you might best like to get from your house to an unfamiliar destination. The way my wife navigates is to study the whole map, to get an overall view, to learn the total gestalt of the landscape between our house and our destination and to use it to contextualize all the various turns we take to get there. Getting from point A to point Z means knowing at every moment where you are going in general, as opposed to simply knowing where you are going right now. The destination remains in mind at all times as a kind of regulating background idea. The specific points on the map in between points of departure and arrival (turn here, go straight there) are only numbers in a connect-the-dots drawing. What we are focusing on is the overall shape.

There is a certain abstraction involved in this: you are paying less attention to what you are experiencing here and now than to the abstract idea of where you are going. Whatever it is you are experiencing here and now is demoted to the mere fulfillment of an expected pattern, a set of boxes to be checked off. And it must be said that this is a very efficient way to get from points A to Z. It’s rational and relieves a certain amount of stress in driving, because you are (or at least feel) more fully in control of your fate. You don’t have to worry about what’s coming next, because whatever is coming next doesn’t matter, except insofar as it gets you to your goal. That’s coverage.

Then there’s another version: it’s the GPS version, where a robot voice tells you to turn left here, bear right, etc. — you are moving through a space articulated by a new direction that arises with each new feature in the landscape. Actually, a better way of looking at it comes from a friend of mine who spent time in Japan and at this one Zen monastery she was visiting was compelled to follow a dark, wooded path into a forest and up a mountain in the dead of night. At the end of the path the monastery was lit up, but you couldn’t see it, because the path twisted and turned through thickets grown to black shadow with the setting sun. In darkness, all you have is the next lantern on the path right in front of you. You can’t see the whole path, but only the little bit of it lighted up ahead. At any given moment you can learn which way to go, but you will not grasp the whole path until you have walked it. Walking a path like this, in the dark, in uncertainty and anxiety, maybe, demands faith. Faith that taking each turn, moment by moment, will amount to something more than an endless series of individual steps — will amount to a pattern that leads somewhere. That’s exploration.

And now to apply my metaphor to the experience of someone taking a class: the coverage approach maps an area of study as a totality, a path grasped whole, with individual topics within that area taking their place as stations on the path. Or, if you like, as entries on a check-list, to be ticked off one by one as they are encountered and dealt with. Exploration is the process of moving through the individual moments of the course, each individual piece of assigned reading/listening/viewing, in such a way that you are constantly picking up new clues as to where to head next. You are renegotiating your place in the map moment by moment, and the topic as a whole — the general shape of the course — emerges only at the end, as the product of having walked the path.

Obviously, the “exploration” model does not really apply to courses where the professor is doing all the talking. If it’s a lecture course, the professor is putting on a performance of his or her mastery of the topic, and you strap in for the ride. It’s what Marshall McLuhan called a hot medium: there aren’t a lot of spaces for participant interaction; it repels our touch like a hot stove. In this case, the professor is rather like the author of a book, and it makes as much sense to know the titles of his/her various lectures in advance as it does to see a table of contents in a new academic book.

But I don’t usually teach courses like that; in almost any class, I really try to enable as much discussion as possible. Now that you can just watch lectures on Youtube or iTunes U, the question for professors in bricks-and-mortar universities has to be, what is the value added by actually being in class? What can you get in my class that you can’t get by watching a video of it? And to me, that has to be a measure of human interaction — discussion, in other words. Talking things through. Seeing where the conversation leads.

In Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places, John Stilgoe writes about his seminars in urban geography at Harvard, which involve a lot of going outside and looking very closely at things like manhole covers.*** By their nature, these courses are very “cool” (in the McLuhanite sense and, to me, in the more usual way too). They rely a lot on student involvement, which means a lot of contingency. Stilgoe has no way of knowing in advance what his students will turn up in their explorations, but he has the skill and experience to know what to assign when this or that contingency arises. His classes are very much on the “exploration” side. Which means that he doesn’t give his students a fully-scheduled 15-week syllabus, and which also means he has to convince them that it’s OK:

Late in the 1980s I stopped distributing schedules of lectures. On the first day of class I introduce each course, show slides that outline the subject matter, hand out a reading list and examination schedule and speak a bit about the sequence of topics. But I refuse to provide a schedule of topics. Undergraduate and graduate students alike love schedules, love knowing the order of subjects and the satisfaction of ticking off one line after another, class after class, week after week. Confronted by a professor who explains that schedules produce a desire, sometimes an obsession, to “get through the material,” they grow uneasy. They like to get through the material. They like knowing the halfway point, the near end. I assure them that examinations will occur on given dates, that the term paper is due on the day I announce on the course information sheet, but then I explain that the lack of a topic schedule encourages all of us to explore a bit, to answer questions that arise in class or office hours, to follow leads we discover while studying something else. Each of the courses, I explain patiently, really concerns exploration, and exploration happens best by accident, by letting way lead on to way, not by following a schedule down a track. [John R. Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (New York: Walker and Company, 1998), 3.]

So by now you will have figured out that I naturally tend to prefer the exploration model, but don’t get me wrong, there are sound reasons for the coverage model. I think professors sometimes forget what an anxious situation it is when young persons come upon a topic about which they know very little and are obliged to learn about it in a setting (the college classroom) in which they have very little authority. It’s scary, and I still remember the sour-stomach feeling of dread that used to steal in on me at the beginning of every new term as I started reckoning with the new challenges I had invited into my life, whether wisely or unwisely I was to find out later. And in this situation of anxiety, it can be a great comfort to receive a 17-page syllabus with every last bit of course content listed and slotted into an exact place on a temporal map. You know what path you are to walk; everything you are asked to do is just the unfolding of the expected pattern. If you don’t have faith, either in the material or in the prof or in general, then this is always going to be the preferred model.

But in the end I don’t like these enormous and intricately-plotted syllabi. They are works of speculative fiction: I am having to pretend that I know now that we will need to read the third chapter of Jeremy Grimshaw’s book on La Monte Young on Monday of week 13. If the course is anything more than a series of monologues, how the hell can I know something like that? It’s like something you might do as a teenage kid calling your crush on the phone for the first time, all trying to plan out everything you’re going to say. (Anyone know what I’m talking about?) What happens is this: I provide the full 15-week schedule and then have to start changing it after about 3 weeks (with successive emails and multiple uploaded syllabus versions piling on confusion and frustrations), or else, like a fussy and intrusive tour guide, I hustle the students to keep on track and frog-march them past all the delightful little side-alleys and curious unexpected vistas that emerge in the course of our discussions, all in a frenzied attempt to “cover all the material.” And that is, for me, the most frustrating thing of all, a negation of everything I value in teaching: sacrificing conversational learning and human experience for some abstract idea of coverage. And yet for years I have been putting up with the nagging sense that this is a ridiculous thing to do only because it answers to some fossilized stereotype of what a “well-organized class” looks like.

We always say we want education to be a grand adventure of discovery, an exploration of new worlds, sailing through uncharted oceans, but in the end what we settle for is the circumnavigation of the duck-pond.

*and accustomed now to academic study deformed by a passion for quantification into the academic study of that which can be quantified.

**(in one form or another, since 1991)

*** Let’s see if you can answer any of these questions: where are the manhole covers in your community placed? Is there a pattern to their placement? If so, what might account for it? Where and when were the manholes in your community forged? What do the foundry marks on the manhole covers tell you about the iron manufacturing in your region? About industry in general? You probably don’t have a clue, but Stilgoe’s point is, if you open your eyes to the stuff you see everyday, you will start to see the traces of historical and natural processes all over the place. You will start to understand the world in which you live.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Coverage and exploration

  1. Pingback: Beyond Nerf Education | grahamlarkin

  2. grahamlarkin says:

    Well said Phil. I started to leave a comment, but it morphed into a blog post, “Beyond Nerf Education” over at

  3. JMatson says:

    Something that’s been successful for me in the past is to schedule a few days of “to be announced” in the course calendar. It has given me more freedom to linger on a topic (b/c we can catch up during the TBA class) or to explore something new (“explore” in the Fordian sense, I hope). This semester I’m trying something I’ve never tried before: course calendar as wiki. I still select most of the material, but about 1/3 of what we cover will be selected by the students (“cover” not in the Fordian sense, I hope). Have you tried anything like that, Phil?

  4. Jim Buhler says:

    Did you see Pannapacker’s tweet yesterday? “Just reworked syllabi with “Quick Facts” and “FAQs” since the full versions now read like software licenses.”

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