On Theory and Syllabi

School’s back in session, and I enter the classroom a little more confident than I did in years prior. I’m at the burgeoning point in my teaching career where I’ve taught all of my classes at least once. I’ll even be teaching some for the third, fourth, or fifth time.

To veterans in the profession, I’m sure this sounds cute. But it’s a big deal when it wasn’t so long ago that you were trying to look attentive during new faculty orientation while drafting syllabi in your head and trying to remember your copier code. It’s the little things…

This is the good kind of professional development book for the new faculty in your life.

There’s something to be said with finally getting to take a breath to understand what it is you’re teaching. As I put the finishing touches on my course materials, I take comfort in the words of Peter Filene in The Joy of Teaching: A Practical Guide for New College Instructors.”

Even experienced professors need three run-throughs to fashion a course to their satisfaction. The first time is trial and error, when you discover what’s possible and what’s not…The second time you teach the course, you avoid the initial errors and false turns. Then–and only then–you can take the content for granted and step back to ponder the structure and process. So the third rendition of the course is what you dreamed of: coherent, well-paced, incisive. And even then, ideally you will never stop finding new angles and additions.

I’m not one for rigidly enumerating the learning process, but Filene’s sentiment and last sentence describe my experience. I just wonder if his remarks prescribe the way good teaching must be. That he’d encourage teachers through those ascetic first years suggest to me that he thinks the craft can be learned better. I just wonder if some of the growing pains are unnecessary.

Throughout my summer travels (here, here, and here), I heard a lot of debates over whether introductory students should learn theory. Apparently this is a debate that is happening in history, art, literature, computer science, and my own field of religious studies.

The reasons against come from a concern similar to that of Filene: there’s so much to master that you can’t possibly learn well on your first go round. Students are better left learning more basic principles–the data, the facts, the foundations.

The reasons for have a long-game in mind. If the job of the student is to learn, then they need a sense of how knowledge and understanding work–the philosophy, the discourse, the meta-criticism.

The struggle is real for both camps. We have so much to teach with so little time and too few resources.

What bothers me about the pedagogical debate is the failure to acknowledge that we are always doing both. Instructors choose what subjects matter. Whether the syllabus is three-pages or twenty-pages, it is primary source evidence of the instructor’s commitment and negotiation to teaching a canon of information. The question is how much do we help students understand why that syllabus looks the way it does. For the theory-friendly, that’s the text that matter most.

Is this book about theory or data? You tell me.

I think theory classes get a bad rap because they’re frequently taught by teachers who presume critical thinking means veneration of the philosopher du jour. Staying current has devolved into quoting the B-sides of well-known, avant grade artists. No one needs to understand what you’re saying, but you get capital by simply knowing of it.


Filene has me thinking that the theory wars (at least, in their current iteration on the teaching front) need to be replaced by a healthy discussion of the learning process. What is it that we are are hoping students gain from our classes? What do we want them to experience? What excites us about what they’ll bring to the table? What scares us about it? What are we too quick or too afraid to name in our courses of study?

I can’t help but think that this order of questioning would encourage enough theory and data to appease both sides.

And just think, we might learn something in the process.


Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

Join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s