Stefy

May 18, 2021

No. 6 — The Ultimate Mixtape

Do you recognize this artifact?

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It's called a cassette tape, and it came into existence in 1962. If you were around before CDs, you probably received one of this from a friend (a crush, maybe?), or even recorded one yourself. If you did, you know that it was a labour of patience and love. You would spend painful minutes, hours, days... stopping and restarting a song in hopes of hitting the red button just at the perfect time. All this hard work was usually meant to be for someone special. 

Creating a syllabus or a course program similar to recording a mixtape: it takes time and effort, and it is a labour of patience and love. It's also directed to specific people: students with dreams, hopes, and expectations... Beings in search of a new artist, a different band, an unusual song...

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. What is a syllabus in the first place? Is it a tool? A manifesto? A map? What are its limits and its horizons? 

🎶 These songs are going to change your life 

When you recorded a mixtape, you'd usually gift it and say something that went along these lines: "These songs are going to change your life". A syllabus should have the same logic behind. It should invite students to live a transformation, a before and after. After handing out a syllabus you should be able to say in your heart: "These readings, this content, these authors, are going to change my students' lives" (just as a great song could). For this, two questions are helpful:

  1. What transformation do you want to create in your students?
  2. What will help your students live this transformation?

Another way to think about it is this: if you had to package your course program in a mixtape and give it a title, how would you name it? For what and when will this program be useful for your students? Fun fact: The term “syllabus” comes from a fifteenth-century misreading of the Greek word “sittybas,” a “parchment label or title-slip on a book.”
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🎧 Duration, space, and rhythm 

Mixtapes can’t be created by searching ‘best mixtapes to share with friends’ on google. Nick Sylvester, a Pitchfork contributor, once wrote:

There’s no format more human than the cassette. I have not encountered a technology for recorded music whose physics are better suited for fostering the kind of deep and personal relationships people can have to music, and with each other through music. No format wears our stain better. 

When we create a course syllabus we're doing something similar. We're choosing the best parts out of a universe of possibilities. This means that what we choose to include (as well as what we choose to leave out), is equally important. Our program wears our stain.

A mixtape's duration was very limited. You had to chose the songs wisely. In your course program, do you rather cover more content in a superficial way, or less content with more depth? What are your course's priorities? 

And what about space? When you were recording a mixtape, a common debate always was: if there is not enough space between songs, will it feel too frantic? Or is it good to deliberately leave those silences, so that whoever listens can absorb that torrent of emotions? The same goes for a syllabus. It is important to leave spaces deliberately. Spaces of silence is to a cassette tape what spaces for reflection is to a syllabus.

And then, of course, we have rhythm. And no one can explain this better than John Cusack on High Fidelity (a movie that I love more than I should).   

“The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem. You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch, but you don’t wanna blow your wad, so then you got to cool it off a notch. There are a lot of rules.” 


At a more micro level, Wes Kao talks about this in her post: The State Change Method. A state change is anything that punctuates an instructor’s monologue and offers a change in pace that causes students to perk up and snap back to attention. Monotony causes audiences to tune out. Movement causes audiences to become alert.

🎹Philosophy, relevance, and order

As with every good mixtape, start by setting the tone. That's equivalent to have instructors share what they value about teaching. Mixtapes used to have the name of a person it was created for somewhere. It was almost a statement of uniqueness and exclusivity.

Your syllabus has to accomplish the same: stand in your students' shoes to understand how what they are about to learn is relevant for their personal and professional lives (and why it's important for you).

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Order matters. My boyfriend listens to a whole album from start to finish in the appropriate order. Whereas I tend to listen to dispersed songs here and there. I now understand his reasoning, though. Great albums (or mixtapes, or movies, or course programs), tell a story. In their book Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything, the authors write that a good story “is driven by not-knowing,” just as every thoughtfully designed course should contain “mysteries, problems, as-yet-unresolved difficulties with which students will wrestle all term. Narrative is also driven by turns, transformations, moments of recognition...”

🔥Edits

Back in the days, if you messed up a cassette tape, well that was it. The technology was not very good and it did not allowed for iteration and improvement.

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In terms of learning experiences, this is the equivalent of having a static PDF document as a syllabus: a printed, finished product that is not to be altered or modified. The good news is that it shouldn't be like that anymore. Today, you can easily create a dynamic syllabus in a Google doc: a live document that give facilitators the chance to sense and respond.

It's been a while since I started creating my course programs in Notion and it's been a game changer. Being able to edit your syllabus allows for much more flexibility and it's a good step towards listening more to your students as opposed to rushing to cover content. Better yet, you can use formative assessment that guides your teaching plus feedback about the process from the students (and then make changes accordingly). 

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If your course program is not working, burn it down. Make edits. Incorporate incremental improvements. Take notes. The syllabus should be a working document. As long as the title of the mixtape is there, use it as a compass and don't be afraid to adjust the course (no pun intended). 

🗺 Create a roadmap

It is usually hard to be aware of the big picture unless you make it visual. Mixtapes used to have a list of all the songs to give you some direction, to reveal what exactly you were listening to. If you read them, they would help you set some expectations on what was coming...
 
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In 2009, Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly asked people to draw a map of the internet as they pictured it, illustrating what he had in mind by drawing his own map. Maps give you a sense of where you're standing and where you're going. They also help to set expectations. Students can prepare ahead of time for the big mountains and the mighty rivers (the difficult content and the constant iterations), and they can also plan accordingly if what lies ahead is a harmless meadow (some time for exploration and reflection).

To continue with the map analogy: allow students to choose a navigation strategy. Choices might be self-guided exploration or a guided tour, for example. How do they want to explore new lands? What tools will you provide for their journeys?

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Kevin Kelly's drawing of the internet

Overwhelmed yet?
Don't worry. Crafting a course program is not simple. You can do what I do every time I'm standing in front of a big challenge: I break it down into smaller pieces. Remember how cassette tapes had A/B sides? Same with a syllabus: you can divide it into modules, subtopics... smaller parts that will make the whole thing easier to build for you, and easier to understand for your students.

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When we created a mixtape, we didn't really knew if the person it was intended to was going to like the new music or not. But we did knew that it was going to surprise them, to widen their horizons, and to expose them to new experiences and thinking. That maybe before this mixtape they had certain opinions of x artist or band, but that after listening to y song, they might think or feel something different.

If it were the case that we are the music that we listen to, what kind of music will we share with our students...?

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PS: And of course there's also the dancing! But I'll leave that for a future post...

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Thanks to Karen Maeyens for reading drafts of this.


I'm Stefy. I write a newsletter about designing and facilitating learning experiences. Have some thoughts on this? I’d love to hear from you – drop me a note.