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Syllabus as a Spiritual Exercise

I once heard Stanley Hauerwas claim, “Teachers tell students what to think. Anyone who has ever written a syllabus knows that.”

That comment once struck me as downright arrogant. Who am I to tell anyone what to think? Make up your own mind! The word, syllabus, comes from the Latin root that simply means, “a list.” Such an outline of material is at best a summary of points, not absolute control of thoughts.

That’s what I thought; then, I actually wrote a syllabus.

While each student certainly has the ultimate freedom regarding his or her thoughts, it is true that I have selected the material we are covering over the course of the semester and, furthermore, will grade them based, in large part, upon my understanding of this content. They are going to be exposed to ideas that I’ve researched, mined, even generated. Of course, my students can “think” whatever they want, but in order to be successful in the class, they must digest, wrestle with, and articulate responses to the information that I have chosen.

Put differently, a syllabus is a mandate of works righteousness with very little grace!

Now, I don’t want to sound arrogant. But as I have reflected on the experience of writing a syllabus, it is an exercise of influence, certainly more than writing a grocery list. In a very general way, I am reminded of Paul’s letters: a syllabus is another document which is far from neutral. Clearly, my syllabus is not sacred scripture; but on a much, much smaller scale and scope, it does seem to have some parallels, not in content, but purpose and expectations. Paul and faculty members want readers and students to think in decided ways about certain, specific topics.

I think, then, that the practice of writing a syllabus requires a great deal of humility. I have decided that these writings, exercises, and discussions are not only worth the time and money of my students, but can be beneficial to their growth and development. I’m not willing to go as far as Hauerwas, but by following my syllabus, my students will be encouraged to think about what I have deemed significant. Come, the syllabus implies, And trust me to think this way. 

So, with fear and trembling, I will pass out this piece of paper, which is almost sacramental in its hope and promise.

About Andrew Taylor-Troutman

I am a pastor and a preacher, a writer, a husband and a father. My professional and personal lives are deeply involved with story-telling: stories that are silly and poignant or profound and commonplace. Stories that are tear-jerkers and belly-shakers. Stories about my son, Sam, and the congregation I serve, New Dublin Presbyterian Church. Each in its own way, these personal narratives shed light on the great story that God is writing with humankind and all of creation.

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