My recent composition courses at LaGuardia have asked how experimenting with a classroom’s tone can contribute to power-sharing pedagogies. One way I have thought through this question is in relation to visual style—how the “look” of the syllabus and course materials might help establish a more equitable relationship between myself and my students.
Before elaborating, I need to acknowledge my indebtedness to Professor Jacqueline Jones, whose Writing Through Literature course I observed in Fall 2017. Professor Jones introduced me to the idea of producing a visual syllabus, which she used in her course. Shadowing her class, I saw firsthand how the visual syllabus set a different tone for the course as a whole by de-familiarizing the notion of the syllabus as an imposing legal “contract.”
This is not to say, of course, that “contract” grading—which usually seeks to create more open-ended participation guidelines in lieu of traditional grading standards—cannot provide a liberating structure for the classroom. In fact, before shadowing Professor Jones’ course, my goal was to produce just such a “contract” syllabus. However, I felt apprehensive about setting the precise parameters such a syllabus needs—one of the reasons I hadn’t already tried contract grading in any of my previous courses. I felt (I’m sure wrongly!) that I would have to sacrifice some flexibility, improvisation, and messiness: all values I considered crucial to my teaching persona and also necessary for respecting the many responsibilities working class CUNY students negotiate every day. So, inspired by Professor Jones’ course, I went in a different direction. I hoped to create a visual style for my course that would push how far I could subvert the legalistic tone of the traditional syllabus, a tone that—in my experience, at least—carries associations of schooling with discipline and punishment.
The Writing Through Literature syllabus I produced for my course in the following Spring explicitly took on a “visual” theme. Subtitled “Visualizing Identity,” I modified a Piktochart resume format using clip art found online to make a kind of “comic book” style, reinforcing both the course’s focus on visuality (through, in particular, an assigned X-Men graphic novel) and social positioning (explored, at least initially, by thinking about our “nerdy” fandoms—yes, mine was the X-Men). Representation—both in the sense of aesthetic and political representation—is always a major subject in my courses. I hoped that engaging this theme in relation to visual culture would help affirm students’ standpoints, but also denaturalize representation and encourage students to challenge the representational order of the day, to “revisualize” the world.
When working on the syllabus, writing in a “comic” font (thankfully, not Comic Sans) felt invigorating, in part because of what the exercise did to my tone. Whenever I found myself speaking in that “legal” voice the syllabus as a genre wrenches out of you, it seemed inconsistent with the visual style I had established. Sentences simplified and got more colloquial: “Your active participation is required” became simply “You gotta participate!”
Other things happened: I found myself presenting the grading breakdown in a pie chart dubbed The Grade Planet, with the grading scale introduced as the Destroyer of Planets: an allusion to Galactus, the Marvel Universe’s planet-devouring cosmic entity, who also appeared in sprite form to proclaim my extra credit policy (“EXTRA CREDIT?! WHAT IS EXTRA CREDIT TO GALACTUS?!”). Instead of including a “professional” photo, I used a cartoonish drawing of me (complete with the Triforce and Master Sword of Legend of Zelda lore) that a former Queens College student had hidden in their final portfolio.
While I partly focused on bringing some levity and “nerdiness” to the class (a way of encouraging students to foreground their own experience and interests), I do think that using a visual style to create a course tone can be pushed in many other directions. Connecting “sight” and “voice” in this way offers, for example, one way of thinking about how to center disavowed subjectivities or “nonstandard” languages in the classroom.
A course’s visual style isn’t necessarily limited to the syllabus. For instance, I also used the “comic book” theme for handouts and assignment sheets, collected on a WordPress site in the same style. The website (linked here, for anyone interested) became a ubiquitous presence throughout the course, projected on the board and engaged with during class, consulted as a one-stop database outside of class. This consistency of style seemed to positively affect how students engaged in classroom discussion and approached their assignments. It cultivated a kind of openness that we called “getting nerdy,” but which really meant allowing our various experiences, standpoints, and vulnerabilities to serve as serious objects of academic inquiry.