At the college where I teach, professors have the unique opportunity every May to develop a course outside of their typical curriculum. Teachers get to explore their interests in new courses as diverse as “The Chemistry of Cooking” and “Writing a Film Short.” Students are offered a wide variety of four-week courses that provide a break from their typical coursework. These short May-term courses are usually something interesting, fresh, experimental, and in many cases fun.
This past May, I opted to teach a course entitled, “Infographics in the popular media.” As a class, we reviewed numerous infographics in magazines like National Geographic, Time, and Popular Mechanics and we looked at scores of infographics that have been produced on the web in order to develop brand recognition, advertise products and ideas, and even sell news. We discussed the ethical implications of visualizing data and how to adapt for editorial-, academic-, and marketing-centric purposes.
Students had a good time experimenting with the development of their own infographics, utilizing common design and communication techniques and playing around visual metaphors and rhetorical devices. Shoot, at one point we were even drawing infographics with sidewalk chalk on a large wall on campus!
As I developed the course, it occurred to me that if the subject matter was going to be on infographics, the syllabus probably ought to be an infographic as well. Not wanting to be accused of doing what has been labeled a “performative contradiction” (talking about one thing, but doing something else), I opted to go this route. This is what I came up with:
My typical syllabus for a college course, if I include the course schedule, list of assignments, and other policy information can run upwards of 15 pages. In the version above, I reduced my information to three short pages. Of course, much was cut out, reduced, and, some might argue, lost. And, this was for a four-week course, not a full-semester course.
But I received an overwhelmingly positive response from both faculty and students who viewed this syllabus. I can’t help but wonder, though, if that is because an infographic syllabus is just something novel. Is it cool because it’s new, but really isn’t that helpful? The problem with infographics, as much as I love them and as much as they seem to be taking the media by storm, is that they don’t encourage in-depth reading. In news media, perhaps that is a serious consideration for the potential dumbing-down of society (if we just look at an infographic, are we really absorbing the news?) But in a syllabus, and other documents that aren’t read that well in-depth anyway, is an infographic a better idea? Should we be making our user’s manuals in infographics? Legal policies? Tax filing instructions? Paperwork for buying a home?
I’m not sure how effective infographics would be for all course syllabi. But I do know that there wasn’t a single question during this May term course from students about what was due, when it was due, and what my expectations were. That is rarely the case when I use my much-more-thorough syllabi in other courses. Is more being lost in our syllabi when we give too much information? Should we be reducing content for clarity by using infographic-style communications in the classroom? My initial reaction would be probably.