Course Marginalia

To learn more about whatever it is I’m doing here, you probably want the current instructional site. The syllabus for the academic year 2016-2017 is also a quick way to learn what I mean by a Humanities makerspace.

Below is an older overview of Sisyphean High. It was written in 2015 for students preparing to take the course that year. It is posted here virtually unedited, which means it will have tenses and references that only made sense to those students at that time. It’s helpful, though, because it demonstrates the idea of ramiform instructional writing — of asking students to get a bit lost in order to develop reading skills and find some deeper understanding.


Two Kinds of August

Around the beginning of the year, at the end of August, you were given your own version of Sisyphean High. Actually, it was two versions — one with your own syllabus, opening-day materials, and interstitial hub, and another with the kind of background required to make sense of it all.

You also have access to other versions of the site. Each is an artifact of collaborative growth and paradigm shifting — a frozen bit of thinking and learning. As Neil Postman wrote,

[w]riting makes it possible and convenient to subject thought to a continuous and concentrated scrutiny. Writing freezes speech and in so doing gives birth to the grammarian, the logician, the rhetorician, the historian, the scientist — all those who must hold language before them so that they can see what it means, where it errs, and where it is leading.

My thinking has been frozen alongside the thinking of your predecessors. While most insights will be repeated year after year, this sort of longitudinal access is a test of your investment and curiosity: As Paul Graham has written, “History seems to me so important that it’s misleading to treat it as a mere field of study. Another way to describe it is all the data we have so far.”

Some Context

The way students are introduced to Sisyphean High has changed regularly. Until 2015, it was an approach used solely in college-level classes — a kind of tracking that I now regret. The summer assignments for those classes are enlightening, however.

Historically, AP students were assigned books to read. 1984 and The Tipping Point were two perennials. In 2011, the summer work changed from books to a study of the basics of argument, rhetoric, and grammar. The next year, it took the form of a rather complicated, online summer project that involved the four modes of discourse, some underground rap, and the idea that Google is making us stupid. In 2013, students received a 30-page, self-contained unit of study on education that essentially argued that the entire public education system is broken and needs to be overhauled.

Unfortunately, nothing worked. Too many students arrived to the first day of school in September exhausted and dejected, having just compressed an enormous amount of work into a few sleepless days. Many of them hadn’t even finished. Some who had finished had only finished in a technical sense. They certainly hadn’t benefited from the experience, and any subsequent effort to capitalize on that reading was desultory at best.

Since Sisyphus is our metaphor/mascot1, this failure felt like a boulder that only grew heavier.

Interstitial Immersion

Until 2014, that is, when the entire structure and purpose of the course evolved. It began with their summer assignment. What you are reading right now is quite similar, but this is more than another iteration: It is a microcosm of the course itself. It is a reflection of a desire to evolve and adapt with students.

The written word is the primary mechanism of instruction, usually delivered through the interstitial classroom. The difference between this and the flipped classroom is that I don’t use lectures; instead, I create arguments and feedback that are intricate and challenging. This is an example — an overview embedded in a website that contains tens of thousands of words.

You might expect that an introduction to a new kind of teaching and learning would feature a series of articles, a book or two, or some research. In fact, all of those things are part of it; they are not, however, explicitly assigned to students, nor does one need that kind of prescribed syllabus to understand. Your goal must be to immerse yourself in the way this course is designed and taught. The more you do, the less likely you are to misunderstand or succumb to the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Start with how you’re reading this document right now. If it’s the printed version, the hyperlinks aren’t going to work that well2, which strips away the interactivity intended. But we can still define unfamiliar words, like desultory and microcosm and interstitial andimmersion. You will only retain new vocabulary, after all, if you encounter it in context, where defining the new word is critical to your progress.

The same logic applies to new ideas, like the Dunning-Kruger effect mentioned two paragraphs ago. If you can click on that link, read the attached article. Otherwise, a Google search seems to work fairly well for most of us in solving the problem of knowing and not knowing. And that’s another link — this one to a YouTube clip of a stand-up comic.

Which gets to the crux of it: Everything you are given in here is connected, everything is deliberate, and everything will help you learn the skills and knowledge you need. You can’t be scared off by difficult language or a lot of dense reading. You can’t skip over footnotes or hyperlinks3. You must embrace a little uncertainty and a lot of hard work.

The Foot of the Mountain

With that in mind, your primary goal is to get to know this course. That won’t happen all at once; it must happen in those interstitial moments. Even while studying a particular unit, the substructural work continues: to internalize everything you can about the course rubric, DAMAGES; to analyze grade abatement; and to explore the interstitial classroom. Get yourself in the right mindset by perusing4 current and past course websites, by talking to former students, and by experimenting with the ideas you encounter.

At each step, you are going to strengthen your autodidactic muscles. My hope is that you develop a nascent understanding of all of this — every strange reference, odd philosophy, and meticulous mechanism. You must be a precision polymath who understands what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and why we’re doing it that way.

Checklist That

Part of the schemata students expect is a checklist: a simple, multi-step process arranged in bullets and presented with some clipart. In a course without grades, we must nevertheless make some concessions to these expectations — i.e., we checklist the process5.

As soon as possible, you should have a nascent6 understanding of the following:

1. Our approach to assessment: grade abatement.

This is the universal language of learning we use in all assessments. This is the most complicated, freeing, and galvanizing element of the course. You should know how the idea evolved, including its inspirations and influences. Start to study and to parse the profiles and the ten academic skills and traits that comprise them.

2. Our approach to writing: bishop composition.

This is the universal language we use for writing, reading, and various kinds of analysis. You should start to internalize the DAMAGES rubric and accompanying writing process. You should also know what ETA writing is, how radial and proxy feedback work, and what our post-writing process looks like.

3. Our approach to technology: the interstitial classroom.

This is primarily about the collaboration and self-management made possible by the online components of our learning. You should understand the unique efficacy of each element: reddit; Medium; Google Drive; Twitter; the course website, Sisyphean High; and so on.

One of the more illuminating interstitial sites is Medium, where our course Medium account explicates and explores many of these ideas. As one example — an important example — the essay below covers the collaborative paradigm and what happens when we work together to shore up collective ignorance:

GAPs in Herd Immunity

In other words, we are all in this together, and the stronger we make our individual understanding, the greater our collective success will be. In fact, it is possible to borrow some of the collective strength from past students of Sisyphean High — to learn from them, stand on their shoulders, and push the boundaries of how we learn just a bit further.

Many of those predecessors are still in touch, willing to help whenever and wherever possible. In 2015, the best example of this is the discussion in the “Tip of the Iceberg” post, which is as much about collaboration and stewardship as it is about self-assessment and introspection. There is good advice on the old course subreddit:


One Book, One School

In 2015, the high school gave as its summer reading requirement The Other Wes Moore. It is a splendid book, and it lets us talk for a moment about literature, vacation-based atrophy, and the interesting chiasmus7 used in that hyperlinked PDF:

In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you. ― Mortimer J. Adler

This is worth a conversation. Most of us — teachers and students alike — have struggled with how to approach reading. The conversation gets especially vexed when it comes to summer reading, which is, like this document, a kind of entrance into the school year. Carolyn Ross has a pretty cogent and convincing takedown of summer reading, and there is, of course, already a Sparknotes page for The Other Wes Moore.

Part of the difficulty we all face is an attempt to develop your empathy and humanity. We must grapple with the decline in narrative capacity and the research into cognitive plasticity, and as uplifting as Adler’s quotation is, it isn’t enough to overcome those deficits. But there is power in pithy quotations. I like what C.S. Lewis has to say, and used his ideas to frame an essay about literature:

Those Who Don’t Inhabit a Tiny World

Read that bit of thinking from me, and then consider the role that literature plays in your life. Sisyphean High is a radically different learning environment, one that will not look or feel much like a traditional ELA course — but it is an ELA course. My love of literature remains, as does my belief in the Humanities and the power of writing as a counter to the dehumanizing focus on “mathandscience” in contemporary education.

You must read widely and frequently, in fact, to make of yourself an interesting and interested person. Let what you read prompt you to write widely and frequently, and you will establish a powerful habit.

Because these are the things that human beings do — thoughtful human beings, at least. We must consider how and why you read as must as what you read8.


The most important facet of all this might be your individual initiative, which includes your willingness to work early and often. Embrace the word interstitial and the spirit of this document; if you do, then you will be able to ask questions before the usual panic settles on you. I will do my best to answer any emails or comments within a few days.

Initiative is one of the strongest indicators of success in this course. The Pareto best — the galvanizing 20% — are often the ones that embrace the learning curve, accept some confusion and fear, and forge ahead9.

Note: This is a rewritten version of the 2015 summer assignment for AP English Language & Composition. That original version is available online at the following URL:

  1. We have more than a few class metaphors/mascots. You should also read Albert Camus’ essay, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and pay attention to the last line; Camus’ version of Sisyphus gives us a galvanizing philosophy — the idea that we are trapped in a repetitive and dehumanizing loop, but we retain the ability to find meaning and purpose in our work. 

  2. You can click on them as often as you like with your finger, and all you’ll get are strange looks from the people around you. That’s okay, though. As one of our authors writes, “We’re all mentally ill; those of us outside the asylums only hide it a little better.” Tap away. 

  3. Footnotes and hyperlinks are just two examples of the ramiform approach we’ll take to learning. You must also pay attention to image captions, embedded multimedia, and the strange marginalia of websites. Consume everything you are given. 

  4. This is an odd word that can be used to mean two contradictory ideas. Learn to love words and their origins, if you can; it will help you see the connections between ideas, too. 

  5. The verbing of “checklist” here is a kind of anthimeria. So is “verbing.” The term matters far less than the effect — which is the approach we will take to all rhetorical strategies. Read the introduction to Silva Rhetoricae for more about this, and begin to think of all reading as fodder for emulation-through-analysis — the ETA methodology that will inform most of your work this year. 

  6. That’s the second time in three paragraphs that you’ve seen this term, which is important enough to be defined in a footnote: It means “just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential.” You are already capable and intelligent; the more time you spend on this substructural summer work, the more you buy a future where you are more prepared and less stressed. 

  7. Load the Forest of Rhetoric and scroll down until you find chiasmus. The name for this sort of device is powerful — all names are powerful — but as an earlier footnote says, we will always be more interested in the impact than the classical term. 

  8. That link is to a 10R course I taught in 2014-2015. There is no AP equivalent, because the assumption is that AP students will read — a post hoc assumption that adding the AP prefix to your schedules makes you different from your peers. The evidence suggests otherwise. In this article, for instance, Elif Koc notes that “[s]mart, charismatic kids could go into English class without doing the previous night’s reading, listen to the class discussion for a few minutes, and then join in with ease.” Gamesmanship is part of education; one of our goals is to recognize it, parse it, and defeat it. 

  9. Pareto refers to an organizing concept in this course. Start here, and then read this post, which is in a footnote to the first. Then recognize that we are not limited to 20%. I believe any group of students can reverse the percentages.