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Annotate Your Syllabus 3.0

Perhaps it is not surprising, given my research about social annotation and learning, that the two most-read blog posts I’ve authored are Annotate Your Syllabus and Annotate Your Syllabus 2.0. As educators–both K-12 classroom teachers and higher education faculty–prepare for a new academic year amidst the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope this third entry productively informs course planning, pedagogy, and student agency.

Please share your strategies and insights via social media using #AnnotatedSyllabus.


Have students annotate their course syllabus.

Learners should mark up their syllabi in order to help them make sense of whatever is about to happen in their schools, with their courses, and to their education.

Because it’ll be really important for students to read and revisit their syllabus throughout this fall semester.

Because annotating a syllabus enables learners to share their curiosity and concern, over time.

Because annotating a syllabus conveys a message–from day one–that course documents are not static artifacts, that something authored by an instructor is not unwelcoming of feedback, and that student voice is both appreciated and necessary for a shared endeavor.

Because courses that begin in-person or on campus will likely move back online, and those changes should be documented and discussed.

Because the likelihood of disruptions to the academic calendar will impact assignment due dates, planned activities, and course policies, and those changes should also be documented and discussed.

Because student questions will emerge and change throughout the semester, and those queries should be documented, and responded to, and reexamined in a forum that is easily referenced and revisited.

As educators, we are faced with daunting and precarious circumstances.

We know that our K-12 and higher education courses–as well as our professional learning activities–will be facilitated online or in a hybrid arrangement over the coming months, if not for the entire fall semester, and perhaps for much of the 2020-21 academic year, too.

We know that our courses, programs, and schools may begin the year either in-person or in some hybrid/hyflex design, yet we may be forced to pivot, yet again, to fully online and so-called “remote” learning.

We know that the confluence of concern about personal and community safety, technology access, digital pedagogy, school funding, enrollment, and contingency plans (among many other dynamics) is a reminder that a feature of “normal”–some idealized state of affairs that cannot and should not be returned to–was endemic educational inequality. We know rushed efforts to return to a broken school system is an abdication of imagination and empathy.

Amidst great precarity for educators, learners, and communities, why even discuss such a provincial matter like the annotation of syllabi?

Because annotating the course syllabus is a simple strategy: Simple conceptually, for it is easy to understand; simple pedagogically, for it is easy to implement and facilitate; and simple technologically, just share your syllabus as a Google doc that allows for commentary.

Because annotating the syllabus is appropriate for courses across disciplines.

Because annotating the syllabus is appropriate for courses across formats–online, hybrid, hyflex, wherever and however learning is facilitated this fall.

Because annotating the syllabus is appropriate for learners of many ages.

Because annotating the syllabus is a particularly useful strategy when uncertainty is a given and flexibility is paramount.

My syllabus is not a “contract.” The last thing students need right now is a fixed contract about their formal learning when life beyond the physical and virtual walls of school indicates the importance of agility and change. It is, however, useful to understand a syllabus as a metaphor.

So I’ll offer this interpretation: A syllabus is an educator’s draft vision of teaching yet enacted, a preamble to learning yet accomplished.

For any syllabus to usefully help both teachers and students realize more participatory teaching and learning, especially this fall, it is necessary to amplify the social life of this document. Annotation–and social annotation, more specifically–is one means of sparking the social life of your syllabus. That’s why it’s important to annotate course syllabi.

The how of social annotation concerns both technological affordances and pedagogical practices, many of which I have previously discussed in Annotate Your Syllabus and Annotate Your Syllabus 2.0. I should also mention educators who have shared insightful and necessary syllabus statements that can complement the content of course syllabus (irrespective of discipline), such as Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Basic Needs Syllabus Clause, and Brandon Bayne’s Adjusted Syllabus statement, and most recently Chris Jones’ How to be OK statement.

Whatever may be initially included on a course syllabus, support your students to annotate it.

Because annotation emphasizes the importance of close reading.

Because social annotation emphasizes the importance of closely reading online texts.

Because annotation is a collaborative activity that can contribute to social connectedness and online community-building.

Because annotation is a social activity that is peer-supported, interactive, and oriented toward meaning-making.

Because annotating a course syllabus is a low-stakes and high-impact practice that is responsive to the fluidity of shared circumstance.

Because an annotated syllabus is a thought-through syllabus.

Because an annotated syllabus is one step toward inviting the co-construction of learning–and that, given broader unpredictability, is a practical commitment I will make in collaboration with my students.

Join me. Share your stories using #AnnotatedSyllabus. And best wishes for the new academic year.

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