Building a better syllabus in Canvas

While I haven’t written a post on Canvas in awhile, I’ve been invited to co-host a workshop on creating an equity-based syllabus that can be accessed from outside the learning management system. Doing this makes sense for all sorts of reasons:

  • Students who are curious but not yet enrolled can see what the class entails
  • If there’s a lag time between enrollment and being able to log in to the LMS (at our college it can be overnight), there’s something to point new students to
  • The syllabus can be shared with colleagues
  • The syllabus can be livened up and used for other purposes: introduction, sending a friendly greeting, etc.

The original idea for the workshop was to use Google Sites to create the external syllabus. It’s easy to use and lets you embed video, plus it creates a phone-friendly page. But I’ve been creating my syllabuses (yes, it’s Greek, not Latin) for years in Google Docs, which I can then embed on the Syllabus page in Canvas. That way, whenever I make a change on the Google Doc, it shows also in Canvas.

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t make doing these things easy. Google Sites cannot be embedded in Canvas. And Google Docs doesn’t let you embed video.

But the Syllabus page in Canvas itself is just a web page, and there is a way to make it visible without logging in to Canvas. It allows video to be recorded right on the toolbar, text to be formatted, links to be added, etc.

But the trick is in Canvas settings:

If you set the visibility to Course (or Institution), you can still use Customize to make the Syllabus page public. Then if you give students the Syllabus page URL, they can see the page even if they’re not logged in to Canvas.

The only caveat is that the class must be Published. But even if you set the class so that students can’t see the rest of the pages before the start date, this works: the Syllabus page is visible from outside.

A couple of hints:

  • On the Canvas Syllabus page, uncheck the “Show Course Summary” box. The course summary adds a huge list of every assignment in your class, when they already have that in the To Do list, and makes your syllabus huge, so get rid of it.
  • Use a shortening service, like, to make your syllabus link smaller. Instead of, you could share the link

Copying and pasting syllabus text (don’t make it too long — no one will read it, and you can have a separate Information page or a FAQ instead inside the class), then adding a recorded friendly greeting, takes very little time. Making things better doesn’t have to be hard.

Prepping adventures: the big questions

To the dismay of some of my colleagues, and the delight of others (and the total incomprehension of most), I am continually preparing the next class. So, even though it’s June and I’m teaching three classes that started last week, I am thinking seriously about Fall.

Fall for us begins in August, so it’s not that quirky. And next term, for the first time, I will have an intern. The SDICCA program in San Diego County, in association with San Diego State University, matches Masters students with community college professors*. The intern will work closely with me the entire year, attending my classes and campus meetings, and learning from me as his mentor.

This requires a certain meta approach from me as I design and teach my classes, particularly the on-site classes. This opportunity was one of the reasons I wanted to be a mentor. While my ego does not require a minion to learn things “my way” (on the contrary), I do require that things change up a bit to keep me on my toes. The necessity to explain why I do what I do, and to change things in response to someone else’s thinking, is a boon. Although I do change things in response to students all the time, the power relationship there is quite different than that between mentor/intern, particularly as I intend to make clear I hope to learn as much from him as he does from me.

But one thing I must “teach” is class discussion, my bugaboo. I have only one class where I really do it, my early American history online. At the beginning of the week, I post a 5-minute video from a series that considers “both sides” of an issue, and ends with a question (for example, “Was the Constitution a democratic document?”). The first few days of the week, I allow students to respond with their ill-informed opinions, vent, argue, etc. Then mid-week I summarize their contributions and reframe them, asking new questions based on their input that nevertheless point them toward deeper, thematic issues that connect to the assigned documents. It works well for them, but requires a lot of work from me: it is very much instructor-guided.

Although I have done this also in a classroom setting (using video clips from controversial issues in the news), I feel that these days some larger, philosophical issues should be considered. I do not want to simply increase polarized views by encouraging evidence-based arguments. My goal for teaching has always been to train a person see the news of the day and connect it to similar “news” from the past, to put today’s events into perspective. That’s what history is — context. THE context. It’s the way we know what the present might mean.

When I didn’t know that my modern European History class would be cancelled last spring, I prepared a list of such questions, one per week. I wasn’t exactly sure what I would do with them, and I never got to find out. (Don’t get me started on how students are being told by equity-minded individuals to avoid European history, and how they are avoiding classes that require deep thought so they can more easily achieve “academic success”.)

I tied each question to that week’s area of coverage:

  • 1 Story So Far
  • 2 17th c Politics and Culture
    Should only people who own homes vote? -or-
    At what point should society’s leaders no longer be allowed to lead?
  • 3 Science and Enlightenment
    How important is reason as opposed to emotion?
  • 4 Enlightenment Economy and Society
    How should a country’s economy be regulated, if at all?
  • 5 Political Revolution
    Is there a point where the people can get too much power?
  • 6 Industrial Revolution
    Should we help workers who don’t make enough to live on? how?
  • 7 Socialist and Romantic Response
    How do ethics come into politics?
  • 8 19th century society
    How important is it that people have definite roles in society?
  • 9 Nationalism and Imperialism
    Does nationalism necessarily lead to treating others poorly?
  • 10 Great War and Russian Revolution
    Does war settle disputes?
  • 11 The Interwar Years
    How can fiction help us understand the present?
  • 12 World War II
    Why do people become followers?
  • 13 The Cold War
    How does one find ones place in society?
  • 14 Social Revolution
    How can literature guide people’s views?
  • 15 The Contemporary West
    What issues or values should transcend politics?

So now, keeping in mind the need to connect their own opinions to the topic, I’m starting here for modern American history:

  • 1 US to 1865
    Why study American history?
  • 2 Reconstruction
    What might have been a better plan for Reconstruction, and what would have made it difficult?
  • 3 The West
    What happens when we see people from the past as victims as opposed to people with agency?
  • 4 Incorporation and Immigration
    How do immigrants become part of the American story?
  • 5 Empire
    Does America still have an empire?
  • 6 Progressivism
    What should be the government’s role when capitalism causes problems?
  • 7 The Great War
    How should Americans who oppose war be treated?
  • 8 The 1920s
    In what sense is progressive thinking countered by traditional thinking?
  • 9 The Depression
    What is the government’s role in alleviating suffering?
  • 10 WWII
    How should the U.S. respond to authoritarianism around the world?
  • 11 Post-war and Cold War Politics
    In what sense do fear and restrictions of civil liberties go together?
  • 12 The Fifties (culture)
    Why is celebrity culture so influential?
  • 13 War and Activism
    When a college tries to make its curriculum “relevant”, what does that mean?
  • 14 Inclusion and Exclusion
    Which is more important to social justice, the laws or the courts?
  • 15 New Millenium
    What have been the impacts of the internet?
  • 16 Contemporary US
    What is the role of the idea of “privilege” in contemporary discourse?

I am not sure that these are the exact questions, or how I want to use them in class, but it’s a start to think bigger.


*It’s interesting. We are called “professors” in the press and in the commencement program, but when I asked for this designation on my college business card, I was told no. We don’t even get “instructor” anymore, only “faculty”.

2 comments to Prepping adventures: the big questions

CE History

I’ve spent the morning following references related to the Rebel Wisdom Summit, posted by Jenny Mackness, exploring the war between what’s being called the “authoritarian left” and “safe conversations” about racism and equity (rather than invoking them as weapons). I’ve been learning about Ian McGilchrist’s update on the bicameral mind in a pleasing RSA format, the case of Brett Weinstein and Heather Heyling at Evergreen College, the issues surrounding their pedagogy, Jordan Greenhall’s Medium article from 2017, and Heyling’s own post on Grievance Studies. All together, quite an education for a morning when I’m supposed to be marking papers and reading discussion posts!

But the notes I took weren’t directly about any of them. I began to think (as I am wont to do): “all of this has a history — I wonder what would happen if we studied it”. It seemed to me it would be interesting for all parties to step back and examine in historical perspective the issues they were fighting about in real-time. Because that’s what’s missing, of course — perspective.

I am teaching an on-site modern US History class in Fall, and if I’m lucky I’ll have an intern. This will be a new experience, teaching someone to teach while I’m teaching. I expect it to be quite wonderful, and educational (especially for me). I naturally feel a responsibility to improve my ability to articulate my pedagogy. At the same time, I’m hoping to do some workshops on equity and history in my department. Combining that with all this “rebel wisdom”, what I began to do is map out class potentials.

                                                                                      From Historical Association

At first I thought, I’ll gather resources appropriate to demonstrating the national social conversation from 1865 to the present: what the issues are, what arguments were used, where violence ensued and why, etc. Then I realized, of course, I already have this, in my set of primary sources (mentioned in my analysis of the “new agenda”). So it becomes a matter of reframing, of making the resources a conscious set, rather than a collection students later realize were “activist”.

For now I’m calling this Conscious Equity, an effort to showcase the discipline of History, privileging the underprivileged not just because that’s what we do,  but saying that we’re doing it. Whatever rules the “authoritarian left” wants to make to control the conversation, it must still take place, in classrooms and in a spirit of inquiry rather than fear and personal emotion. We still set the tone in our classroom. We can try to establish an environment that demonstrates the peaceful sharing of ideas, concern for each other’s learning and the opening of minds, and privileges modernist scientific rationality as a method for developing individual interpretations. Every historical document is a fact, and we can use the advantage of time to step back and use perspective as a tool.

So onward to read some research and develop some methods for Conscious Equity as a tool for US History.



5 comments to CE History

  • Great to know that the Rebel Wisdom Summit sparked off some thinking about pedagogy. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your thinking next month 🙂

  • John Mackness

    A pre-requisite for the use of ‘generative conversations’ in your pedagogy will be ‘group sovereignty’ according to Greenhall. I think he means by this that individuals feel confident about contributing within a group.To build sovereignty, you need a healthy body, the capability for creative thinking an good sense-making tools. It’s a lot to ask!

    • Lisa M Lane

      That is very true – I have already begun looking for techniques to encourage this sort of environment in my classroom. I think the room itself is an advantage in that it is physically in some ways “apart” from the world, a sort of enclave. I know a bit about what not to do (for example, I do not like the “covenants” mentioned by Weinstein – I prefer to assume that all discourse will be civil unless something happens). I’ll look into Greenhall further, so thank you!