Examining the Syllabus as Cultural Artifact

Feb 26, 2018
Have you ever stopped to consider how your syllabus—and even your institution and country’s educational system—is influenced by cultural values, beliefs, and assumptions?
Our educational institutions—and everything we do within them—are socially and culturally constructed.  We all have beliefs, values, and assumptions when it comes to what “good” and “bad” education look like, and it’s important for us to reflect on what those are, where they come from, how they shape our work, and how they might be perceived by and impact others.
But where to start?  How about with your syllabus!
Examining the syllabus as a cultural artifact is a helpful exercise for educators to deepen our own self-awareness and create more inclusive communities on our campuses and in our classrooms.  In addition, it can be a great activity to do with students who are studying in another country so they can examine their own assumptions and expectations, and consider how education in their host country may differ from what they are used to. 
To engage in this exercise, grab a syllabus from a class you teach (if you don’t teach, this can be helpful to do with any syllabi from courses on your campus).  Try to imagine that you are from a completely different planet; you know nothing about Earth or this particular country, and have just arrived to participate in an educational exchange.  You received this paper (the syllabus) about the first class you are going to take.  Examining the syllabus with curiosity and an open mind, answer the following questions:
  • What values are represented or conveyed?  Consider the length of the syllabus, what’s included, what’s not included, the language used, etc.  For example, does it have a detailed schedule and what might this suggest about values surrounding time?  What might you infer about the relationship between professor and student, or the value of competition vs. collaboration?
  • What are some of the negative perceptions you might have about these values, or about this culture or educational system based on what you know so far?
  • What does the writer assume about the reader?  What is left unsaid, assuming understanding or shared meaning?
  • What questions do you have about higher education in your host culture after examining this syllabus?
What did you learn through this reflection? 
Now, imagine yourself as an Earthling once again.  Based on your understanding of the diversity on your campus, consider the following:
  • How might the content of the syllabus be viewed as inclusive by some students?  That is, who might feel included and why?
  • How might it be seen as exclusive?  Who might feel excluded?
  • What could be done to make the syllabus—and the course—more inclusive?
​As a next step, you might want to find some syllabi from other countries with which you are involved in some way, leading study abroad programs to those countries or teaching international students from there (or learn whether such a thing even exists; if it doesn’t, reflect on what that difference might mean).  Compare and contrast these documents with the syllabi from your own cultural context, using the following reflection questions as a guide:
  • How does this differ from syllabi you are used to seeing? 
  • How is it similar?
  • What does the document suggest about possible similarities or differences in the educational values, beliefs, and assumptions in these two cultural contexts?
  • What does this document suggest about possible similarities and differences in the relationship between professor and students in this culture?
  • How might your educational expectations be challenged if you were to study in the culture where this syllabus is from?
  • What more do you want to know about education in this other culture and how might you learn more?
Exploring these questions can help us better understand our own expectations, assumptions, values, and beliefs surrounding education.  Becoming more aware of the fact that others may have different expectations, assumptions, values, and beliefs around education can help us learn more effectively and adapt in new contexts, appreciate rather than judge cultural differences, and create more inclusive learning spaces.
I’d love to know what you learn, if anything, through this exercise!  Please share in the comments section.

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