Guidelines that aren’t Rules

Last week, while searching for “creative syllabus” examples, I found Tona Hangen’s syllabus for U.S. History from 2011. Today I finally read through it. and was intrigued by her advice on how to take the course:Tona Hangen's Syllabus screenshot

Admittedly, when I first glanced over the syllabus, I skimmed past this section because the wading/snorkeling/scuba diving metaphor seemed cheesy. But, after reading through her descriptions of the different levels of deepness, I like the comparison. I especially like how she links the different levels of deepness with questions–what, how and why–and offers a guide, not a strict or too-specific set of rules on how to take the class. And I like how she invites her students to reflect on why they are taking the course. She writes:

Think about why someone has decided that learning this material might be essential to your college experience, and what that means for you personally.

Tona Hangen

She invites her students to “enter with me and go as deep as you dare.” I wonder, how does she evaluate these different levels of deepness? Can you get an A if you only wade? I always disliked grading students. I can imagine students freaking out about how deep they needed to go in order to get an A. 

I don’t want to borrow her model here, but it is inspiring me to think through what my model is. I’m thinking about my ideas of ruminating like a cow and reading like an owl eats:

But here I would ask for your patience since it turns out that critique is a practice that requires a certain amount of patience in the same way that reading, according to Nietzsche, required that we act a bit more like cows than humans and learn the art of slow rumination (307).

Judith Butler

Eat like an owl: take in everything and trust your innards to digest what’s useful and discard what’s not.

Peter Elbow

Final note: I found the syllabus for Hangen’s most recent version of this class. Her three levels of deepness aren’t on it. Why not? Did they fail to work? Did they not fit with Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) or the guidelines for her department?

Rules are tools

Rules and Schools are tools for fools! I don’t give two mules for rules.

Constance Contraire

I have a complicated relationship with rules. As a troublemaker who is undisciplined, I don’t like to unquestioningly obey rules. Rules can be too restrictive. Set a tone of distrust. Foster an environment of hostility. Be extremely unjust in their implementation. Rely too heavily on outdated traditions. But, rules can provide structure. Order. A common ground. Comfort and reliability. These are things that I need, even if just in small amounts, especially when I’m experimenting and trying to make and stay in trouble.

So, unlike Constance Contraire, one of the kid heroes in Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, I don’t believe that “rules are tools for fools.”  We need rules. They can be tools for undisciplined troublemakers. But which rules? How many? And how do we implement them?

I’ve posted a few rules on this blog (see tag: rules). I think I’ll try to find some more. Maybe I’ll ask others what rules they use?

Here are my rules, collected from a few different syllabi that I’ve taught:

  1. Show up.
  2. Ask lots of questions, but don’t (always) expect answers. (Find them yourself!)
  3. Engage, be active, take responsibility.
  4. Be early. (If you’re on time, you’re 5 minutes late.)
  5. Pay attention.
  6. Do it now, not later.

In my green notebook, I wrote the following:

What ARE Rules For?

  • Structure
  • Security
  • Freedom to Experiment

What AREN’T Rules for?

  • Punishing or controlling
  • Suppressing creativity
  • Asserting AUTHORITY!
  • Belittling, mocking, oppressing

Rules should answer YES to the following questions: Does it recognize my dignity? Does it encourage/promote/support?

Rules should answer NO to the following questions: Does it do violence to me/others? Does it discourage/ shut down ideas/ people/ conversations?

Rules for Discussion: David Foster Wallace

Anybody gets to ask any questions about any fiction-related issues she wants. No question about literature is stupid. You are FORBIDDEN to keep yourself from asking a question or making a comment because you fear it will sound obvious or unsophisticated or lame or stupid. Because critical reading and prose fiction are such hard, weird things to try to study, a stupid-seeming comment or question can end up being valuable or even profound. I am deadly-serious about creating a classroom environment where everyone feels free to ask or speak about anything she wishes. So any student who groans, smirks, mimes machine-gunning or onanism, chortles, eye-rolls, or in any way ridicules some other student’s in-class question/comment will be warned once in private and on the second offense will be kicked out of class and flunked, no matter what week it is. If the offender is male, I am also apt to find him off-campus and beat him up.

David Foster Wallace

I have mixed feelings about these rules. I really like this idea of encouraging otherwise reticent/fearful students to speak up and ask questions. And I appreciate his willingness to punish assholes who mock fellow students. But I don’t completely agree with the idea that there are no stupid (lit) questions. Well, maybe there aren’t stupid questions, but there are thoughtless, uncaring questions that aren’t aimed at furthering the discussion or digging deeper into the text, but at pontificating or avoiding the difficult work of finding your own answers. How did DFW handle these types of questions?

Ivan Brunetti’s Cartooning: Analysis

Cartooning: Philosophy and Practice



A syllabus with fifteen week-long lessons on learning how to draw and “write with pictures.”


  • “Formal” syllabus at beginning
  • 15 lessons


  • Syllabus contains: course description, lesson plan, required texts, terminology, the sketchbook, rules and regulations, useful tools, a few words on computers
  • Sections of syllabus included commentary and personal reflections
  • Lessons contain: explanation of key concept, several exercises, homework
  • Minimal illustrations/cartoons
  • Mostly (small, typed–is it futura?) text
  • 1 page appendix with recommended books


This ‘classroom in a book’ provides the aspiring cartoonist with a practical means for creative self-discovery and the exploration of complex ideas through the iconic visual language of comics (1).

About this Book

Useful for my book?

In quickly reviewing this book, I’m inspired to think again about structuring my project as a syllabus. But, would it work as well? I especially like how he incorporates his philosophy and personal reflections into his introduction and syllabus parts. He also includes some snark. It almost feels like an intervention into the syllabus-as-usual (dry, boring, boiler-plate, overly practical).

I’m struck by the differences between Brunetti’s and Barry’s tone/approach. Barry cites Brunetti as one of her key mentors. Part of the differences are because these are different projects. Brunetti’s book is an actual syllabus with lessons, while Barry’s book is a collection of reflections on and artifacts from her syllabi/classes. But, there’s more to the differences between their books.

Ivan Brunetti's Rules and Regulations
Ivan Brunetti
Lynda Barry's Classroom Rules
Lynda Barry

While Barry’s pages were crammed with images, doodles and hand-written and typed text, Brunetti’s pages are sparse with a simple typed font and lots of white space. His images are almost exclusively on separate pages, not mixed in with the text like Barry’s are. Both exude a passion for teaching and drawing, but Barry expresses her passion with more enthusiasm and vigor (as evidenced through her reflections, illustrations and gushing notes about/to students), while Brunetti employs sarcasm, self-deprecating humor and the ridiculing of “bad” students.*

*note: I’m basing my assessment of Brunetti on his syllabus and a very brief look at his 15 lessons. Since I’m thinking about “taking” his course, I don’t want to spoil it by reading ahead.

I would like my tone to be somewhere between these two, enthusiastic without too much gushing (and crowded images/text) or too much cynical distance (and sparse pages).