A Professor’s Journal: Life is not like a syllabus

You will observe that many of the everyday activities that I write about in “A Professor’s Journal” are very ordinary and perhaps should not merit the space of a newspaper column, but, nonetheless, these are activities in which I am involved and for better or worse I can only write about those things that I know. Please be patient with me, for sometimes even in the most mundane tasks we can learn something about ourselves and others.

One of my tasks as a teacher, a task that I have recently performed in preparation for an eight week last half of the semester course, is the preparation of a syllabus for HIS 222, American experience since 1865. This is a job that I always undertake with a measure of excitement. I begin this work soon after the completion of each semester, when the successes and failures of a term of study are fresh on my mind. Perhaps there is something I can change in the syllabus for the next semester that will keep me from repeating the mistakes of the past.

As you know, a syllabus is a document, handed out to students in the first class session, which explains the course and defines the parameters of the course for students and professor alike. I never encountered a syllabus (at least I don’t remember seeing one) until I was a freshman at Belmont University, but now I notice that high school and middle school students are given a syllabus for each of their courses.

The syllabus includes the course number, title and catalog description. It also includes statements about the purpose of the course, a listing of course objectives, identification of the required textbooks and outside readings, a description of the writing component of the course, all testing and grading procedures, the academic honesty policy, the attendance policy and finally a class-by-class schedule of readings and discussion topics. Every class session is accounted for. The class schedule helps the student (and the professor) prepare for each class session. Hopefully, students (and the professor) will have digested the readings for that day and will be willing and even eager to contribute to the class discussion.

Although there are sometimes unavoidable digressions, it always amazes me how we are able to adhere so closely to the class schedule of the syllabus. By the end of the term we will accomplish what the syllabus has outlined. Hopefully, each student will fulfill the requirements for the course, as the syllabus has dictated. At the end of each semester we wrap up the course in a neat package, I deliver the grades electronically via MyGate and then I begin to put together a syllabus for the next semester, to start the process all over again. With each new syllabus, there is always the anticipation of success, the hope that students will be furthered along in their academic journeys, that real learning and real progress will be made.

I have learned that life is not like a syllabus. Life does not come pre-arranged or pre-packaged. As much as we try to plan ahead, it is impossible to put together a “life schedule” like a class schedule in a course syllabus. Of course, a college class always offers up many surprises, pleasant and unpleasant. But life itself is all too messy. So much of life, it seems to me, is out of our hands. Life often throws us a curve, or as the theologian and writer Frederick Buechner put it, “Life works us all over before it’s all through.”

In life, as in a college course, however, there is always the hope of success, that we will be able to complete the course requirements in good order and in good fashion. Maybe, we can finish well. The apostle Paul said it best in a letter to his friend Timothy. At the end of his life syllabus, he said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”

Column by Duane Bolin, professor of history.