Syllabusing Swimmingly

I started to write a truly snarky post yesterday about how I couldn’t get anything done, how bloody hot and miserable I was, and about how pissed off I was with syllabus planning that was going nowhere. But, when I sat down to write that post, I got one line in before a dear friend in Seattle called me. So I talked to him for a couple of hours instead of posting. It is always hard to find a good time to talk to him because of that whole East/West coast time issue. It doesn’t help that I fundamentally lack any night-owl proclivities and I’m usually in bed by the time he gets off of work. (When I was a little kid, I used to regularly ask permission to go to bed, please, and was told that I had to stay up long enough to eat dinner.) Anyway, it was really great to talk to him. And, as an added bonus, I got to snark at someone in person about how miserable I was, which was far more satisfying than just doing it to the general ether-net.

Given the badness of yesterday, I was really due for today. Today, was an incredible day. I don’t know what they put in my Wheaties, but dang, it worked!

On the personal front: I was able to return to my favorite form of exercise after 6 months away from it. I woke up too early (again — I think I need to face up to the fact that I wake up at 6 every day, and so adjust my nighttime accordingly), but it was good because Spousal Unit had to be at work earlier than normal so I was awake to drive him in and take the car for the day. (Being both good little environmentalists in a very small town with a good bus system, and being fairly cheap, we only have the one.) I then decided that physical therapist be damned, I was taking my ass to the pool. I just couldn’t take it any more. I had to get back to swimming. It’s been six months, at least, since I got to swim laps, and I really missed how soothing it is and how much it chills me out. And, let me tell you – It was amazing. I’m not really much for exercise, but after 2 minutes in the pool, every bit of me was shouting: “I LOVE IT I LOVE IT I LOVE IT!!!!!!” Believe me, this does not happen for me during any other exercise. Usually after 2 minutes of working out, it’s more like: “WHEN CAN I STOP WHEN CAN I STOP WHEN CAN I STOOOOOP???” I took it pretty easy as a nod to the physical therapist I was defying just by being there and only swam a measly little 18 lengths. Also, I alternated strokes so that I didn’t do too much of any one movement for my shoulder. So far, so good today, I feel ok, we’ll see how it goes in the next few days. When I saw the PT today, I did confess to my aquatic transgression, and he told me I should wait at least 2 more days before going back. But, he said that if it doesn’t bother me, I can start swimming again a couple times a week! Which, with the semester looming, sounds like a godsend.

On the professional front: I finally wrestled my syllabus into the ground. After the pool, I went to a local cafe for breakfast (fried egg and bacon on a multigrain baguette, oj, and a decaf iced mocha with skim, although it may have been caffeinated — which just might have been what they put in my Wheaties — I’m not sure). After scoring my favorite corner table, I got out my computer and told myself I HAD to deal with the syllabus and make some progress before I gave up altogether and let the students plan their own darned course. For the past two days of working on it I just couldn’t seem to come up with anything whatsoever. For some reason, I couldn’t figure out how to structure all of American History from contact/conquest to the end of the Civil War. There’s just so much. I kept going around in circles. In particular, I was stuck on the chronological vs. topical organization. The only other syllabus I’ve written before was for a course that didn’t move chronologically. So, I could easily structure the class around a few main themes, and it worked well for me to do it like this. The History Survey course, however, is by its very nature already organized chronologically. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t seem to handle this at all. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how to make this universe of material manageable for the students since I couldn’t even make it manageable for myself.

And the main source of wisdom I’ve been drawing on didn’t help me with this dilemma at all. I’ve been reading The Joy of Teaching by Peter Filene as I plan this syllabus. It is a great little book that lays out the steps of planning a course and helps you think about preparing to teach for the first time. It has been a huge help in many ways. But, it begins its discussion of the syllabus with exercises for articulating the central organizing principle, the critical theme/topic around which the course is structured. The fact that I did those exercises and still couldn’t find a theme for the class only added to my frustration.

But, today at the cafe, something just clicked. I don’t know really how it happened. I think it began when I took a sample course description for the modern survey I liked from the Filene book and translated it for the early survey. Somehow, this opened the floodgates, and ideas started pouring out. I found my central theme (power & resistance), I wrote my own course description, laid out the assignments, and the in-class activities, the lectures, and discussions for the first three weeks of the course (which constitutes the first unit: encountering empires, creating colonies). I sat at that cafe until 1:30, and by the time I left for physical therapy, I had it all laid out. Then, I spent the afternoon and early evening in the library putting together the assignment list. I also ordered my textbooks. It finally felt ok to commit to them, maybe because I finally committed myself to the course. I don’t know. Regardless, I’m just happy to be swimming along again.


5 responses to “Syllabusing Swimmingly

  1. wonderful! That really does sound like a floodgate moment – congrats!

  2. Congratulations indeed! What a good feeling to be ready for classes. I’m incredibly impressed that you’ve already planned out the discussion for the first three weeks; I’m never that organized and farsighted.

  3. You GO girl!

  4. Hooray! That’s fantastic. I’m currently avoiding my own survey-course syllabus for all those reasons (don’t know whether the central organizing theme will work, etc.) But perhaps you’ll inspire me…

  5. Thanks all!

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