Yes, it’s that time of the summer.
That time when you’re beginning to prepare courses for the new academic year. And if you’re reading this, you’re probably drafting and revising a syllabus, too.
It’s been awhile since I last wrote about annotating course syllabi. My first entry, from 2018, is practical but a bit too technical and particular. The second entry is more helpful, for it features key principles to guide syllabus annotation: Emphasize social reading; use familiar technology; and focus on commentary and conversation. The third entry was published in the summer of 2020—after pandemic lockdowns, given shifts to emergency remote instruction, and in recognition of (still ongoing) disruption to many academic routines. It holds up and reads quite well. Perhaps that’s because it’s the entry that most closely resembles a manifesto. It’s less “how to” and more “why now.” The entry is my call-to-action rooted in pedagogical care and instructional flexibility: “A syllabus is an educator’s draft vision of teaching yet enacted, a preamble to learning yet accomplished.”
Semester-to-semester, in every course during this particularly challenging chapter, my students and I have annotated our course syllabi. And, over the years, I’ve fielded lots and lots of questions—whether from students or colleagues or strangers—about syllabus annotation. Large enrollment course? Annotate in small groups. Undergrads? Structured prompts help. Students unsure how to start? Model commentary and keep it informal. Too open-ended at the start of the semester? Establish expectations, bound the time, and invite feedback on specific readings, assignments, and policies. Didn’t annotate when classes started? That’s ok. Do so to gather feedback mid-term or as a summative reflection as class ends. How to start? With a clear statement. Mine is below. What about course formats? Meet your students where they are, whether online or on-the-ground. But my syllabus is already stuffed with stuff so why should I even… Maybe, just maybe, students’ commentary can help you to clarify, refine, and declutter a bit. OK, sure, but students don’t even read the syllabus… Maybe, just maybe, you haven’t invited students to read with a specific purpose, and annotation opens a door to dialogue, feedback, revision, and so much more.
Why this new entry from me, and why now? Because I’m not teaching this year, as I’ve done each and every academic year since 2005-6 when I began my career as a middle school teacher. I’m beginning my sabbatical. As that starts, and as I step away from the classroom, I’d like to discuss what has become a signature practice in my life as an educator by:
- Sharing my “Annotated Syllabus” statement
- Modeling a few strategies for annotating a syllabus
- Celebrating educators who practice syllabus annotation
My Annotated Syllabus Statement
First, here is a simple and student-affirming request as you prepare for the new academic year: Add this “Annotated Syllabus” statement to your course’s syllabus.
Welcome to our Annotated Syllabus. This syllabus—like our course—is incomplete without you and your commentary. This Annotated Syllabus is the start of a conversation about our course, your learning, and shared accomplishment. We will annotate our syllabus by: Asking clarifying questions; sharing opinions about readings and assignments; noting confusions and uncertainties; responding to policies; providing advice; and reflecting on what works and what can change. While your annotation may be critical, let us strive for commentary that is inquisitive and constructive. Your ongoing thoughts are welcome anytime so that this syllabus documents our learning together this semester.
That’s 99 words. Some version of this, slightly tweaked over time, always appears in my syllabus. And please, use this statement with intention and attribution. Revise and remix it. Make it your own. Experts agree: Adding this statement to your syllabus will reduce the likelihood that you’ll complain about students not reading the syllabus, will prevent you from hiding $50 in a locker, and can help you eliminate a perfunctory syllabus quiz.
Then what happens next?
Strategies for Syllabus Annotation
There’s no “one right way” to annotate a course syllabus. And for good reason. Our institutions, our disciplines, the requirements and histories of our courses, and our preferences as educators are as varied as the students we teach. And just as there is no foolproof recipe for this strategy, there’s no guarantee (or suggestion!) that this is a panacea for broader instructional challenges—and whether those are associated with campus policy, required technology, curricular constraints, or the many traumas of the moment.
What I am suggesting—based on what I’ve learned from my practice and from my colleagues—is that an annotated syllabus is one effective entry point for active learning in your course. It can, for example, jumpstart your shift toward pedagogies of care. It can signal that you’re affirming the presence, curiosity, and critique of students. As I’ve written, an annotated 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.
Here are three strategies that may help you and your students to easily and effectively participate in syllabus annotation activities.
1. Start with a Google Doc. GDocs are a pervasive, low-barrier, and easy to mark-up document. I have found GDocs to be the smoothest way to draft my syllabus and then share with students, whether I embed it in a course site, post via a blog, or link via an LMS. It’s a quick way to start and, as the owner of GDoc, I will be automatically notified when students start adding comments to the syllabus. And students can comment either anonymously or when signed into their Google account, providing flexibility as to how they prefer to participate. As comments are added, it’s remarkably easy for me to reply (often on my phone), watch threads of comments grow, update syllabus content based on student feedback, and also use the GDoc “Suggesting” feature to propose revisions prior to a substantive revision. I should also note that I begin with a GDoc even when using social annotation tools for other reading activities throughout the semester (for those who follow my scholarship, I’m a strong proponent of Hypothesis). Whether or not you plan to feature social annotation throughout your course, and whatever social annotation tool you may use for other assignments, start your syllabus annotation with a GDoc.
2. “Seed” your syllabus annotations. Before you share the syllabus with students, before students access and read it, and before students add their comments and questions, add a handful of “seeds” to your syllabus. Be the first annotator who invites response. Do not share a syllabus with your students that you have not already annotated. How do I “seed” my syllabus? With a mix of annotations that are administrative, introductory, informal, personal, and critical. Here are a few examples of “seed” annotations from courses I’ve taught this past spring and summer terms:
3. Reply with care and welcome feedback. If you’re annotating a syllabus for the first time, it’s likely that your students are, too. Your students may be apprehensive and a bit skeptical. Students may feel vulnerable. Students’ initial commentary may be hesitant, critical, or informal. That’s all OK. Indeed, that’s the point! However students chose to “show up” and “mark up” the syllabus, reply with care and welcome dialogue that leads to clarity, course improvement, and a strengthened learning community. Yes, a thoughtfully designed assignment may be thoughtfully criticized. Yes, a favorite reading may need to change for unanticipated reasons. And yes, a course policy may be questioned as inflexible. Please remember, if you’re going to annotate a course syllabus it’s not productive to then respond with knee-jerk defenses of course design or attempts to nurse a bruised ego. Reply with care. Welcome student feedback. Revise the document. Iterate your pedagogy, improve your course, and invite students to document how they will co-construct their learning together.
Celebrating Educators Who Practice #AnnotatedSyllabus
Annotation makes thinking visible. And annotation can make visible, to a community, thoughts about teaching and learning that are directly tethered to a course’s central document—the syllabus.
I do hope you and your students annotate a course syllabus together this academic year. Start by adding the “Annotated Syllabus” statement to the top of the document (preferably a GDoc), and consider using the other strategies I’ve modeled in this post, too. And remember, an annotated syllabus isn’t a systemic response to the many well-documented ills of higher education. And, as noted, an annotated syllabus cannot mitigate an institution’s entrenched shortcomings or solve problems that persist beyond the classroom. Moreover, an annotated syllabus is risky; instructors are seldom incentivized to experiment with pedagogy, and students are rarely invited to express honest opinions about their education. Nonetheless, an annotated syllabus is one useful and easy-to-implement pedagogical practice that is feasible right now with your course, syllabus, and students. Indeed, courses have always been generative spaces for pedagogical experimentation, spaces where educators and students can both reimagine and enact new learning futures.
How are learners, and their voices and views, immediately welcomed into your course? Whose critique and concern can be made visible? How might divergent opinions collectively identify opportunities to (re)shape a course from day one? And in what ways can commentary, including dissent, generate new learning directions and opportunities? These are questions about presence, power, and possibility. An annotated syllabus is one means of eliciting and working with these questions in visible and meaningful ways.
As I have with prior posts, here are a few recent reflections from educators who have embraced this pedagogical practice. Please share your thoughts, questions, struggles, and successes via #AnnotatedSyllabus.
Happy annotating, enjoy the process, and have a great year.