Saturday, January 19, 2019

The KonMari Syllabus: Teaching Less and Learning More

Is it time to declutter your syllabus?
"Graphics Class" by Ryan Johnson used with Creative Commons License.

Just in time for many of us to start thinking about our next semester's classes and syllabi, Marie Kondo's Netflix premier, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, blew up. Love it or hate it, her KonMari method of sorting out those things in our lives that do not "spark joy" sparks conversation.

After watching the entire first season of the show and attacking my own closet and bookshelves with gusto, I started thinking about the gigantic boxes of books and papers waiting for me to unpack in my new office on campus. Too stymied by the thought to actually do anything about that particular problem, I addressed something honestly even more frightening, creating a new syllabus for a new class with new time limitations.

I opened my laptop and perseverated for an entire afternoon, making and unmaking changes. By the time 7 pm rolled around, I had accomplished nothing, so I gave up and ate supper with Marie on Netflix. The following morning I attacked my lists of graded assignments and in-class activities with gusto previously unparalleled. I owe some of that to the energy created by Marie Kondo series and some of that to my return looking into a "less is more" approach in current pedagogical theory.

Teach Fewer Topics and Students Learn More Deeply

I was first introduced to the idea of "less is more" by Nicki Monahan, MEd. Monahan published an article in October of 2015 called "More Content Doesn't Equal More Learning," a title that excellently sums up the thesis. The article focuses on the idea that as we develop our syllabi we keep in mind "threshold concepts" and our roles as "content curators" who, instead of deciding "'what' to  teach,"should focus on "'how' to facilitate learning." One scenario the author suggests for paring down class activities and topics is to think about a chance meeting with a student several years after graduation: What would you want the student to still know or know how to do?  As Marie Kondo might suggest, what answers could that hypothetical student provide that would "spark joy" for us as faculty? Those answers become the backbone of our lectures, planned activities, and graded assignments.

Breadth Versus Depth 

Another view of this tension between having a lot of content on the syllabus and covering only "threshold concepts" is referred to as "breadth versus depth," a tension especially felt by faculty who are responsible for teaching survey courses meant to cover a great breadth of knowledge, none of it necessarily in great depth. Although researchers have found benefits in teaching a great breadth of knowledge, teaching a great depth of knowledge is shown to correlate to higher order thinking, or the synthesis and application levels of Bloom's Revised Taxonomy (Coker, Heiser, Taylor, & Book, 2017). With these benefits as well as others discussed in context of active learning methods, like experiential learning and problem-based courses, I became convinced that decluttering my content was the right choice.

Asking Difficult Questions

After revisiting this research topic when I started revising my syllabus, I started asking myself some tough questions about my course content. Strangely enough, I was asking the same questions about my course content as I was asking about my belongings.

  • Am I hanging onto this piece of pottery because of nostalgia, and is it still serving me and my family? I love pottery, but is this piece of pottery worth having? Would we appreciate it more if it were the only piece of pottery on the shelf?
  • Am I hanging onto this topic because of nostalgia, and is it still serving me and my students? I love The Things They Carried, but is covering it in an hour and a half really doing it justice? Would we appreciate it more if it were the only reading before midterm?
I think the answers to both these question sets, at least for me, are that we will appreciate what's there more abundantly and more deeply if there is less there.


Whether or not we can agree on the importance of decluttering our homes, or come to a complete understanding of what it means for a pair of utilitarian work pant to "spark joy," what those of us who teach may certainly be able to agree on is that decluttering our syllabi is a worthwhile endeavor. We must force ourselves to keep only those "threshold concepts" and skills that will "spark joy" in us when we realize more students understand those important ideas more deeply.


Coker, J. S., Heiser, E., Taylor, L., & Book, C. (2017). Impacts of Experiential Learning Depth and Breadth on Student Outcomes. Journal of Experiential Education, 40(1), 5–23.

Monahan, N. (2015, October 12). More Content Doesn't Equal More Learning. Retrieved from

Want to read more about pedagogy and learning? Try

Learning Community Classroom Design
Active Learning Classroom Design and Pedagogy
Contemplative Education: Modeling Mindfulness in the Classroom

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Pen and Ink: Inspired to Draw with Sticks

Prepping sticks for drawing requires minimal effort
The mark of a clever art book is that it inspires readers to make some marks of their own. James Hobbs's book, Pen and Ink: Contemporary Artists, Timeless Techniques, inspired me to make a few marks. Specifically, I was inspired to learn more about drawing with sticks, just plain ol' dirty sticks, of which I have an abundance.

Drawing with Twigs: Ch'ng Kiah Kiean

The image from the book that truly inspired me was an ink drawing of Ng Fook Thonk Temple by Ch'ng Kiah Kiean, and there are additional twig drawings in the book by the same artist. The fine lines and detail of the drawings belie the artist's humble tools, dried twigs. Yet there's personality and interest in the drawings that would not be there had Kiah Kiean used commercial pens, which create a more consistent line.

Preparing Sticks for Drawing

Googling "drawing with sticks" provided me with two videos that both showed how to draw with sticks, one that demonstrated how to whittle a tip and another that showed almost the same results with an unchanged tip. It seemed easy enough after that, almost "anything goes." I chose a variety of sticks from my yard; some oak, some cedar, and even some trumpet vine, and I pulled out my woodworking tools. In this instance, I used pruning shears, a fine sanding block, and a box cutter.

A variety of sticks can create a variety of line thicknesses and qualities
I used the pruning shears to clean up the tips of the twigs and the box cutter to make sharper points and flat tips. I used the sanding block to create more consistent surfaces.

An Experiment in Drawing with Sticks

To test my twigs I used a watercolor paper and a royal blue Pelican ink. I did try watering the ink a bit, but it created a bleed I did not really like, especially when using the trumpet vine. Using the trumpet vine created quite a "blobby" line, but it worked well as a "brush." On the other hand, the cedar, especially the small cedar twig, worked beautifully, as did the oak twig with the sanded tip.  As expected, the cedar twig I split created a lovely double line. Using the cedar and oak sticks made my handwriting extra lovely, and as an added bonus, I don't have to clean my pens at the end of my session.

With materials at hand, including a brand new "art supply" from my yard, I was able to follow up on an inspiring inclusion in Hobbs's book. The experiment was a complete success, and I look forward to hearing about your endeavors in the comments.

Want to read more about no fuss art projects and supplies?  Try
Adult Coloring Books
How to use Beautiful Buttons
Point of View and Emotion

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

On Kaiseki and Haiku

Seasonal Kaiseki image by Nishimuraya Kinosaki used with
Creative Commons License 4.0.

Haute cuisine, much like poetry, has both internal and external form. In addition to how a dish looks, its ingredients and components, it's expected to be more than the sum of its parts: A fine dining experience of the highest caliber contains within it the chef's narrative and an essence of unity.  The same is true for poetry.

Japanese seasonal kaiseki is a lot like haiku, for example.

The Importance of Haiku's Internal Form: Kigo and Kireji

A haiku's external form is immediately recognizable.  Most readers of poetry can identify a haiku by its three lines of a set number of sounds per line: In Japanese, the lines are divided into 5-7-5 sounds, and in English some poets have adapted that structure into 5-7-5 syllables per line. However, the poem's internal form is much more intricate and contextual than its external form. A haiku's excellence and importance is judged by its use of seasonal words and cutting words, known as kigo and kireji, respectively.

A poet's seasonal words, or kigo, come from lists of words known to evoke particular seasons or even to draw upon the cultural context of famous poems that use the same seasonal words. These lists of kigo are called saijiki.

An excellent explanation of how to use cutting words, or kireji, comes from Michael Dylan Welch:

In Japanese, traditional haiku include words that function like a spoken sort of punctuation. More importantly, they cut the poem into two parts, creating a sort of juxtaposition, not only grammatically but also imagistically. The point is to carefully pair two images together in such a way that a shift or disjunction occurs between them. The art of haiku lies in creating the right amount of distance between the two parts, so the leap is neither too far (and thus obscure) or too close (and thus too obvious). By focusing on concrete images rather than judgment or analysis, the two juxtaposed parts of a haiku allow the reader to feel what the poet felt, without the poet telling the reader what to feel.

Just as the simplicity of haiku's external form tricks us and pleasantly surprises us as we dig into its images and meaning, a chef's internal form, narrative, or unity, can surprise and delight the palates of diners. An excellent haiku poet's use of kigo and kireji sets them apart as masters of the form just as a chef's knowledge of technique and ingredients creates renown.

Seasonal Kaiseki

Lines of haiku are not the only inspiration that comes in threes. Appreciating a balance of three has been instilled in artists across all art forms, and cooking is included in that long list. According to an article by Elaine Yu and Amanda Sealy from 2006, kaiseki is an "evolving tradition," but initially, "a set consisted of meshi (steamed rice), shiru (soup) and mukozuke." In the traditional, diners started with rice and soup to "warm up the stomach," then would move on to sake and sashimi. Like haiku, the flavors and textures progress in an order determined by the maker, the poet, the chef. The meal is punctuated with a form of culinary kireji.

Traditional kaiseki has more in common with haiku than its Japanese origins, punctuated progression and lines of three, however. Kaiseki is based on seasonal ingredients. A hassun is a seasonal platter that sets the tone of the meal based on its ingredients, those available fresh in any given season. Just as the kigo sets the season of a haiku, the ingredients found fresh in a given season may become part of the hassun course. A yakimono is a course of grilled, seasonal fish. A ko no mono is a course of seasonal vegetables, prepared and pickled.  Being seasonal is part of the language of kaiseki, just as seasonal words are part of the language of haiku.

Culinary expression and poetic expression may seem miles apart as art forms and as experiences, yet haiku and kaiseki speak to one another and through one another. A haiku is a meal of seasonal words, punctuated and progressing toward a feeling of satisfaction in the images. Kaiseki is an edible poem, and those who appreciate it savor its available ingredients, its kigo, just as much as they savor the separation and pauses between courses.

Want to read more about poetry? Try

How to Identify a Sonnet
Denotative and Connotative Meaning in the Poetry of Denise Levertov
Diagramming Mina Loy's "Letters of the Unliving"

Works Cited

  • Welch, Michael Dylan. "Why 'No 5-7-5'?" NaHaiWriMo.
  • Yu, Elaine & Amanda Sealy. "A Beginners Guide to Kaiselki, the World's Finest Meal." CNN. Nov. 8, 2016, 

Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Please contact the author for permission to republish.