The Syllabus is Not the Mother of Self-Invention: Jesse Ball’s “Notes on My Dunce Cap”

Today was my first day of the new semester here at Ohio State University and I am teaching two experimental classes that each explore the Classical in Contemporary Art. All I did today was deliver the syllabus to the students and run through it for them, seeing if they had any questions. Here are what the opening section of one of the course syllabi looks like.

Pretty boring, huh? I don’t think this syllabus could be described as ‘contagious’. But that is what a syllabus should be according to the essay in Jesse Ball’s book Notes on my Dunce Cap recently excerpted in Bomb Magazine:

It is a very good thing if a syllabus is contagious. That is—if one of your students shows the syllabus to someone else, and if then that person is possessed by a sudden desire to take the class, or even to begin conducting research along parallel lines.

Looking at my syllabus, I can’t imagine any such thing happening. Although I am quite happy with the title of the course, the syllabus itself conveys none of the excitement of the encounters that will ensue. Ball’s advice a little later in his essay reads:

A syllabus should frame the kind of encounters that you would like to have happen in the class.

Of course Ball is thinking about encounters that take place in the class – between professor and student and between students – and how the syllabus offers an aspirational blueprint for such encounters to happen. But what happens if the best part of your syllabus is the encounters of content presented in the title?

My syllabus to another class I’m teaching – Philosophy 2450: Philosophical Problems in the Arts – looks just as drab. Take a look at the first few weeks of the schedule:

Even though the course is about art and philosophy, I am not sure my syllabus fulfills Ball’s criteria for artistic and philosophical courses:

If the content of the course is artistic or philosophical, it can be helpful to show in the syllabus that you expect people to be systematic and strong-lunged. This is because there is a class of people who attempt things artistic and philosophical because they believe that the subjects are soft and that anything they create will be just fine. Above all you do not want people in your class if they are not vigorous, driven to change, and critical of their own efforts. If someone is prepared to allow you to do the work of improvement for them: be deeply suspicious. The students can’t gain anything if they aren’t rowing the boat.

Can a syllabus prepare us for what is both soft and strong-lunged about juxtaposing Plato and Aristotle with Moyra Davey’s Mother Reader in a class on aesthetics? As I narrated the dry syllabus in class today, I realized how much I was still working out what this juxtaposition will mean for the students and for myself. I guess we’ll find out later, even if the syllabus doesn’t give us too much of a helping hand with the group task of rowing ahead.

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