My Manhattan neighborhood, which dates back to the late 19th century, is awash in construction. You can’t walk down a block without being assailed by the noise of jackhammers and the sight of backhoes with their metal claws extending onto the street. Here a new building, there a new building.
I guess I’ve caught the bug because, I, too, an engaged in a construction project but, thankfully, mine doesn’t encompass heavy machinery. Its tools are words and ideas. You see I’m constructing a syllabus for a brand new course.
It’s one thing to tinker with an existing syllabus, deleting readings that didn’t take hold, adding something new that wasn’t available the first or second time around, tightening the course’s focus and orientation.
Coming up with a brand new syllabus is another matter entirely. Much like a building, it requires a foundation and a cornerstone; ornamentation and elaboration; volume and shape.
The architect of a syllabus also needs to pay close attention to more subtle matters, too, such as the rhythm of a course and the way in which its themes not only relate to one another like a multi-story building, but also accumulate over the course of a semester and come to a peak.
And then, of course, there’s the question of balance, of how many readings to assign before they lose their luster, becoming more of a burden than a gift; of establishing a proper ratio between text and film, lecture and field trip.
Of all this, the students don’t have a clue. What concerns them is not the arc of a syllabus or its equilibrium, but more quotidian issues: Are the readings too long or too difficult? Are they readily accessible online? How many hours will I have to devote to this course to do well in it? Can I possibly maintain my interest week after week when so many other external things beckon?
Perhaps that’s just as well. The construction and successful execution of a syllabus might be more properly construed as a back story, a part of the production process, one of the tricks of the trade. If we do our job properly, the students will emerge with a new base of knowledge as well as a fresh set of critical skills borne on the wings of the weekly assignments.
The new course that prompts these musings has to do with the postwar Jewish experience in Europe, Israel and the United States. I’ve never taught this before; the material -- there’s so much of it! -- is entirely new to me. I’m hopeful, though, that with the right tools, the course -- and the syllabus on which it rests -- will enrich the landscape of modern Jewish history.