The Syllabus Matters (More than you Think): Reconceptualizing the Aesthetic and Educative Properties of a Core Curricular Text

Concurrent Session 1

Brief Abstract

What if syllabi went way beyond logistics and boilerplate?  What if your syllabus worked like a textbook and looked like art.  This innovation lab explores those questions and while pushing the aesthetic and educative boundaries of these basic but ubiquitous curricular texts.


Michael Lockett is a curriculum scholar with a background in literary studies and mathematics. He completed his PhD at Queen’s University. His Canadian Graduate Scholarship (SSHRC) funded dissertation, Education by Metaphor, explores analogical thought from the perspectives of curriculum theorizing and poetics. In addition to teaching undergraduate courses at Queen’s, Simon Fraser University, and the Royal University of Bhutan, Michael also developed and taught a literary arts program in a federal penitentiary.
Dave Goodrich (@rangerdavie) likes to learn, design, and reflect.

Additional Authors

Gabe Wong is a graphic designer, illustrator and educator. He is interested in the visual representation of value systems and cultures. He is based in Vancouver, Canada and is a faculty member at Emily Carr University of Art and Design and designer at Simon Fraser University's Teaching and Learning Centre. His work can be found on

Extended Abstract

This innovation lab stems from a research project we began in 2016 (Lockett & Wong, 2018).  We were interested in the aesthetic and educative value of commonplace texts.  The final part of that research project involved a conceptual design challenge: we tried to make a syllabus that was both graphically beautiful and pedagogically useful throughout a course of study.   That art project will be displayed, along other examples, in the innovative lab to initiate discussion.   

     During that initial overview we will address some of the aesthetic considerations we incorporated into the design and explain the artefact’s discursive significance. Thereafter we will move to a studio configuration in which participants will reimagine their own teaching practices and curricula through the prism of an intentionally artistic, creative, and representational syllabus.  The following is an outline of the sequence of events in the innovation lab with time estimates:

Session Agenda:

Discussion (10 minutes): 

Participants will be provided with an overview of the research project on which the innovation lab is based followed by a participatory discussion of the session’s design goals.

Demonstration (5 minutes):

Examples of design prompts will be displayed by projector.  Presenters will explain the process by which they were designed and how those methods will be adapted for the present studio/lab context.

Innovation (20 minutes):

Participants will work in groups of four.  Presenters will work with each group on an ad hoc basis, attending to questions and challenges as they arise.  Participants will design their own artifact through sketch work and other graphic means.

Debrief (10 minutes):

Participants will share their designs and discuss next steps in both small (round table) and large group contexts (volunteer basis) and reflect on practical applications relative their individual educational contexts.

This approach will also allow participants to takeaway a tangible, custom design object.  The text and graphic-based artifact they produce is intended to prompt further design work (conceptual or practical), with the aim of informing future curricular practice. 

      In working towards this artifact, the innovation lab highlights specific design approaches and demonstrates an innovative curricular practice stemming from current research in curriculum theorizing (Sameshima, 2017; Wiebe, 2017).  The group structure and design prompts are intended to promote collaborative activity and discussion amongst participants.  Meanwhile the debrief conversation will help participants identify possible technological supports for translating the practices and concepts to their own educational contexts.  The innovation lab itself will also present numerous learning opportunities and outcomes; for instance, participants will:

1) discuss contemporary research in curricular aesthetics;

2) experience innovative design practices;

3) critique the educative value of core curricular texts;

4) examine the technological and creative attributes of two design approaches; and

5) collaborate and co-create through a defined design challenge.


Research Context and Framework

This work responds to Maxine Greene’s “Spaces of Aesthetic Education” (1986).  We wanted to learn more about the aesthetic properties of educational texts, so we developed a research project that included a design challenge.  The challenge was to create a functional syllabus (one that would be used in an actual post-secondary classroom) that imagines its aesthetic and educative attributes otherwise. 

     We chose the syllabus because their use in post-secondary classrooms can sometimes be limited, at least in terms of direct address, to an initial classroom session. Thereafter they are rarely used for reasons beyond factual reference.

     In such cases syllabi tend to be framed with the kind of (in)significance one might apply to instruction manuals: something reductive and denotative and something we should consult before asking for clarity, be it from a call-centre helpdesk or a busy teacher.

     But syllabi can be better than that. Many teachers create syllabi that reach beyond institutional templates.  Or they use their syllabi for pedagogical purposes beyond introductory frames. These course texts may include epigraphs, images or other media forms, fill-in-the-blank reading lists, supplementary resources, negotiable assessment tasks, and so on. These are but a few of the non-standardized ways by which professors play with the genre.

     We thought those exceptions significant because they reimagine the aesthetic and educative possibilities of a primary curricular text. And so, as our longer conversations about aesthetic experience in relation to curricular structures unfolded, we started talking about syllabi in aesthetic terms, all the while cataloguing some genre signatures and extra-genre possibilities (Saito, 2007).

     As our work unfolded, we spoke of curricular experiences that were meaningful and those that were less so.  We tried to articulate what we meant by “aesthetic experience” and we came to lament institutional demands for standardized curricular documents in our respective teaching contexts, especially mandated templates for syllabi. 

      We questioned the educative and aesthetic consequences of limiting expression to a series of prescribed descriptors and text boxes. Eventually we found an opportunity to experiment with the form through a fourth-year course on curriculum theory and practice, an ideal venue for introducing a parallel, yet supplementary, syllabus.

     More specifically, by working through this design challenge, we were forced to reconsider the kinds of learning a syllabus might prompt. We embarked on a series of conversations and readings about the ways curricular structures can come to prompt critical, creative and aesthetic attention (Bourriaud, 2010). We had pursued those intersections in the past from our respective disciplinary perspectives but this was the first time we would collaborate on an art/research project — and one which we hoped would inform and provoke a series of future curricular conversations at academic conferences and elsewhere.  Hence our innovation lab proposal for OLC Innovate 2019.



Bourriaud, N. (2010). Relational aesthetics. Dijon: Les Presses du Réel.

Greene, M. (1986). The spaces of aesthetic education. The Journal of Aesthetic Education. 20(4), 56-62.

Lockett, M. & Wong, G. (2018). Reframing syllabi as aesthetic encounters. The Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies. 16(1).

Saito, Y. (2007). Everyday aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sameshima, P., Miyakawa, M., & Lockett, M. (2017). Scholarly engagement through making: A response to Arts-Based and Contemplative Practices in Research and Teaching. Revista VIS, 16(2), 45-67.

Wiebe, S., & Sameshima, P. (2017, Dec.). Generating self: Catechizations in poetry. Revista VIS, 16(2). 140-155.