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Checking Your Pedagogical Receipts

Lesson planning is by nature a fraught endeavor. It necessitates thinking not just about the content of the class but the shape of the course as a whole, the juxtaposition of readings and activities, and the development of skills over the length of the course, among other things. As a result, the development of the first draft of a three or four page syllabus can take weeks or even months, and the syllabus that gets used in the classroom may be adjusted at the end of a course if the instructor finds that particular readings or lessons failed to resonate with students or meet the previously outlined objectives. Most of my lesson plans are designed to be modular so that I can adapt them as needed to individual courses and students.

Every creative writing teacher approaches lesson planning differently, however, and this becomes abundantly clear when looking at the various syllabi in the field. Some syllabi are only one or two pages long, for instance, while others push up to thirty or forty pages. Some teachers, such as Lynda Barry, the writer and cartoonist, use multimodal techniques to develop syllabi, as in Barry’s hand-drawn examples in Syllabus (2014).

In addition to differences in length and form, there are also notable differences in content. Imagine for a moment a syllabus that includes solely readings from white male authors and does not acknowledge the writing of women or people of color. It’s probably not hard to imagine, as I myself have been in such classes and suspect that most people educated in the American system have had the same experience. In high school, many students spend entire years reading nothing but Shakespeare, Hemingway, and Fitzgerald. That isn’t to say the aforementioned writers aren’t worth analyzing. It’s simply to say that reading lists like that leave out more than they include.

In an effort to be more mindful about this in my own teaching practice, I’ve made myself a list of goals and expectations to consider when crafting syllabi, lesson plans, and reading lists. I have kept this list, for the most part, informal, because as a queer light-skinned Latinx person it’s already important to me to teach diverse texts and address prejudice on the course level. I realize, however, that this is not an inherent part of the process for every creative writing teacher, so I’ve drawn up a list of questions other teachers can use while developing their syllabi. I hope it helps.

  • Have you included works by writers of diverse backgrounds on your reading list? If so, what percentage of the list is by women, LGBT, and/or POC writers?
  • Have you read widely for the specific purposes of teaching this course and of crafting this syllabus? Have you gone out of your way to identify texts that would be beneficial in this course, regardless of whether or not you’ve read or taught them prior?
  • If you are reusing an old syllabus, have you revisited the reading list and lesson plans to ensure that everything is up to date? Have you checked to see what new works have been published on this subject matter since you last taught this course?
  • If your class includes a workshop component, have you prepared a list of best practices to share with students to ensure that every workshop is respectful and constructive? Are you prepared to workshop stories that challenge readers (for instance, by making them discuss difficult topics such as racism)?
  • Are you prepared to give your students the tools to discuss difficult subject matter such as prejudice mindfully and to think about it critically? Are you ready to teach them a lexicon of craft terms they can use to discuss texts in class even when challenged by the subject?
  • If you know the demographics of your students ahead of time, have you thought about the ways those demographics will impact class dynamics (for instance, if the class consists of primarily white people and only one POC)? Do you have a plan to address any problems that may arise as a result?
  • Have you formed your own opinion as to whether or not craft itself is political? Are you prepared to explain and/or justify this opinion to students?