Beyond Nerf Education


In this evening’s blog post “Coverage and Exploration” my man Phil Ford laments:

Our students, products of the no-child-left-behind era of “accountability” and quantifiable results, expect a full reckoning of everything they will ever be expected to do in a semester. In the years I’ve been teaching, the typical syllabus has grown in size from a simple 1-3 page statement of aims and procedures to a swollen pseudo-legal document that assumes the character of a contract. The more suspicious or legalistic of our students come to treat every class like a drawn-out game of Simon Says and act like the prof can’t legitimately ask them to do anything that isn’t explicitly laid out in the syllabus. The syllabus-as-legal-contract suits the administrators, politicians, and parents who don’t trust the professors any more than the students do. And professors, including myself, go along with it, even if they don’t really like it.

Testify, brother! The biggest problem in this age of lawyers and helicopter parenting is that everything has to be *fail safe*. (I’m pretty sure it was Phil himself who hipped me to the wonderful term Nerf Education; he may have invented it.) In my risk-averse neck of the woods (Canada’s capital) I’ve been told on good authority that there’s little point in applying for government funding for academic projects unless you can demonstrate positive results in advance. Evidently the Age of Exploration is over.

But it could be otherwise if a few of us were to push back a little, as I tried to do in my recent return to teaching. The graduate seminar I taught earlier this year was very pointedly called *Adventures* in Multimodal Design. Going into that class I had a pretty good idea what I meant by multimodal design, but part of the point of the exercise was to find out, which I did in the end, and it was only after the fact that I adequately articulated my own role.

I designed the syllabus on the basis of a class list of 22 students, which I realized was the wrong list when I entered a “seminar” of 35. I was fine with the sudden population explosion, since it gave me reason to refashion the syllabus on the fly, and to change the format from a seminar to more of a studio–and a pretty rogue one at that, in which an art historian who had never taught a studio before set out to show architects how to make charts, maps graphs and databases that might or might not have anything to do with architecture. Most of them didn’t, as you can see for yourself over at

While granting myself the latitude to adapt I was careful to explicitly give students permission to experiment, change horses, fake it, take risks and fall on their asses along the way. As I reminded some of them more than once, one only gets a rocket to the moon by building dozens that fail. I even committed the ultimate blasphemy, telling them not to lose sleep over grades since this is a graduate course, hence grades no longer matter.

Despite all that whimsy I had but one real complaint, from a student trying his luck with a request for a grade bump because he felt he had contributed more than some purported slackers in his group. I’ve recently been invited back to teach a version of the course next January. Not coincidentally, perhaps, I’ve also been handed an incredibly detailed syllabus to use as a model the next time around.

In a way this is as it should be. I had already intended to make things a lot less seat-of-the-pants in the next iteration, which should be easier now that I’ve found my way through the woods. But I’ll admit there is part of me that wants to go further in the same direction, perhaps by giving out bonuses for the most ballsy risks and failures.

It’s true that students seem increasingly comfortable with lots of structure. But surely that’s all the more reason to teach them that comfort is not a sufficiently manly or womanly aspiration in higher education. I’m hopeful they’ll be assuaged if we lead by example (i.e. improvising or even playing the fool) and if we reassure them that they’re allowed to make mistakes because exploration is the name of the game. In the bubble-wrapped world of the 21st century academy why not buck the trend by giving students a little wiggle room?


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