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Syllabus-writing as storytelling

Narrative approaches to research and teaching can enhance students’ experiences.


Earlier this week, I realized that we had passed the mid-semester mark (our semester is uncharacteristically long, 16 weeks of class instead of the traditional 13 that I used to teach in Canada). I thus added a couple of extra slides to my PowerPoint presentation recapping our progress to date and how future lectures would shape up. I included a summary table showing where we are in the course.

Obviously, my students and I understand that we are in different places and have different roles. When I think of my teaching, I visualize myself as the ship’s captain and my students as my crew. I read the roadmap and figure out where we are headed next, and my students complete the required activities to keep the ship moving forward.

Planning my lectures, choosing readings, deciding on what to include and preparing my slide decks to support student learning is a fun process for me because, with every lecture, I tell a story. I also tell a story with the entire course. While I don’t actually teach storytelling (which is an entire subfield of study and practice within both the digital humanities and creative writing), I am well trained in how to tell a story and this training permeates my teaching. I love creating narratives with the courses I teach, and I think narrative approaches to research and teaching are extremely powerful and hold promise to enhance students’ experiences.

Some of the stories I want to teach with my syllabi are stories of gradual progression – and, eventually, graduation. The narrative goes something like this: “There is a specific set of tools that you are required to master as a public policy analyst and practitioner. Thus, here are the tools, respectively, that you will need to do A, B and C. Alongside these are a few other techniques you may want to know about. But the main core of your toolkit remains X, Y and Z. Once you complete the course you will be able to do R, S and T.” For example, my narrative for regional development goes as follows:

“In my view, every public policy student needs to be spatially aware. This means you need to understand why space, place and location are relevant in public policy design and implementation. To this end, we use economic geography (Weeks 1 through 3). Under the economic geography banner, we will learn that there are at least four different types of models of regional development (Weeks 4 and 5).

“One of those, perhaps the most popular one in Mexico nowadays, is cluster-based regional development. Thus, we will need to learn what clusters are (Week 6), the different types of clusters (Week 7), and how we can match occupation with employment within clusters (Week 8). We also need to learn that clusters have a specific life cycle (Week 9).

“Once we realize that clusters aren’t eternal, we also need to realize the disadvantages and shortcomings of clusters (Week 10). Future weeks will focus on the challenges that regions face (Week 11, resilient regions) and the potential for industrial decline (Week 13). We will also discuss megacities, the city as the core of a region, and with it, the politics of urban everyday life (Week 12 and Week 14). Finally we will be discussing urban and regional planning in the real world (Weeks 15 and 16) and how we can design robust, evidence-based, spatially-aware and data-driven regional development public policies.”

As you can see from these paragraphs, I tell the story of why we are doing what we are doing, along with an explanation of why I subjected my students to five weeks of cluster theory. If I don’t circle back to my syllabus every few weeks, students may get lost (given the sheer volume of readings I assign, about 120 pages a week) and may not understand what every single reading, every topic, and even the scheduling and position of the readings throughout the course, was meant to be. It’s there to provide context, content and structure.

I find that often, academics tend to be afraid of storytelling as a teaching device. Being seen as “storytellers” rather than as rigorous scholars makes professors queasy. I am often reminded of Dr. Brené Brown’s powerful TED talk on the power of vulnerability. At the beginning of her talk, Dr. Brown describes her discomfort at being labelled a storyteller. She said “well, I could be both a storyteller and a qualitative researcher and maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

In a way, that’s how I see my syllabi: they’re stories that I need to tell about the skills my students need to learn. And those are good stories to share.

Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega is an assistant professor of comparative public policy at the Centre for Economic Teaching and Research (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, CIDE) in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

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