Syllabus 103: What’s Wrong with the Syllabus

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with students about a piece of writing that was scattered and unfocused, and when I asked them, “Who is this for?” “I guess it’s for anybody,” they say, inevitably. Anybody and everybody, and therefore nobody. It’s not aimed at any audience, and so it never hits any targets.

By design, our syllabus has that same problem.

Who is My Syllabus For?

What do we think, as we write our syllabus? “I want to put this in here, because…” We have details that we want to communicate about the course (its definition, its goals, its requirements, its essential connection to students’ development and success), and we also want to communicate information about ourselves: what we value, what we look for, what we hope to avoid (cell phones in class, for example). It’s about us, about achieving our goals.

That’s fine, but our goals for the syllabus aren’t our students’ goals. They care – for the most part – about two things: “When is the homework due?” (by which they mean: “How much work will I have to do in this class?”) and “How will you decide my grade?” (by which they mean: “Which assignments don’t really matter?”) Those are just about the only two questions students ever ask about the syllabus. (Occasionally, they ask about the attendance policy, which we could read as “How often can I get away with not being here,” if we’re cynical, but I’ve already ranted enough about attendance policies.)

They don’t want to know about the course description (which we have to include), because they signed up for the course. They know exactly where they are. They don’t care about the textbooks, anymore, because the bookstore already has a list. They don’t care about the location of the tutoring center, the Title IX statement, the description of our personal values, or the Student Learning Outcomes.

Our students aren’t interested in those things, but they have to be there, because our administration does care about them. The administration (and/or our department) requires a lot from our syllabus, but our students would be just as happy if it were one page long, as long as that page gave them our e-mail address, the grading scheme, and a basic calendar.

Too Many Masters

The problem at the heart of the syllabus is that it serves too many masters. We want to achieve our goals, sure, and our students are the primary readers, but 80% of the material in the syllabus isn’t for either of us: it’s there to fulfill administrative and department requirements.

As a result, the syllabus, as a rhetorical artifact, is destined to be a complete failure. It can’t possibly please everyone who has a stake in it.

I’ve said before that the syllabus is a place to demonstrate our personality and our ethos, and it is that, but it’s also too much for students to take in, and no one wants to spend the first day of class talking about it, particularly students who spend the first day of class talking about three or four different syllabi, all basically the same. I wonder how those students remember anything from any one syllabus, and whether or not those three or four (or more) nearly-identical syllabi interfere with students’ ability to remember details from any individual class.

What Can We Do?

Obviously, we have to have a syllabus. We can’t just throw the required information on a document on the course website and call it a day. That’s no way to get good teaching evaluations. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you how I try to grapple with this.

  1. Write it with ethos. Too many audiences? Too many sets of goals to serve? I try to make it about me. My students are going to read the syllabus, so I think it’s vital that it tell them who I am (more vital than telling them about the due dates, learning outcomes, or attendance policies, honestly). The devil may be in the details, but I try to save my syllabus by giving it soul. When they’re done reading it, if they know what I value, the rest is all details.
  2. Put it on-line, in a variety of ways. A hard-copy is nice to hold in your hands, but it’s not searchable. It’s not indexed. I always put up a PDF version, and when I teach on-line I include a brief video tour of it.
  3. Use it. One of my favorite professors passed away recently, and in talking with some of his other students, I was reminded of his syllabus. It was a beast, and there was always a lengthy quiz on it. More than that, though, it included lists of topics for presentations and references to grammar errors that we had best not commit. (To this day, I resist starting a sentence with “however,” even when it’s the right choice.) I use mine to introduce the idea of voice and ethos, and I ask my students to read it and tell me about my values in the same way I’ll ask them to read other texts. If I approach my syllabus as rhetorically situated, then I can teach rhetoric with it.
  4. Embrace it (when that’s possible), and outsource it (when it’s not). Some times, you should be able to get away with putting on the course website, as long as they’re referenced in the syllabus. Other requirement, though, it’s worth investigating. When I was first required to include a full-page Title IX declaration notifying students that I was a mandatory reporter, and that if they talked about being stalked in a paper or blog post I had to involve a dean, I was worried. I was concerned that my students be able to trust me with their stories, and that discussions that happened in the classroom stayed in the classroom. In the end, though, I decided that my students’ overall safety was more important, and I appreciated the opportunity that the declaration gave me to have that conversation with them. It has led to some fruitful discussions about consent and the oxymoron of “harmless stalking.”

My syllabus is still probably the single-most stressful document that I write, most years. Every year, I try to make it more useful, more immediate, and more relevant. What do you do with your syllabus? How do you integrate it into your course (or do you “fire and forget” it on the first day)? What do you know about the syllabus, now, that you wish you’d known a decade ago?


Technology 101: Learning Mismanagement Systems

I’m teaching a hybrid class, this term, and I’m using a learning management system called SmartSite, which is pretty horrible. It’s clunky, slow, and goes down periodically for no apparent reason. It’s difficult to navigate, and impossible to edit more than one page at a time. Getting around the site requires clicking various tabs, but if one tab is open in another window, changes don’t always save (except when they do), meaning that it’s very difficult to make the parts of the site synch up.

This would be less of a problem if I had built my course myself, as I’m used to doing. Instead, I’m teaching a section built by a team I wasn’t on, and using the format that they built. I have no doubt that they did their best with a bad system, but the end result is a course that I’m unfamiliar with, that I can’t easily edit, and that has activities and pieces in different headings. The group tried hard. The LMS is a mess.

So, what’s a teacher to do in a situation like this? I can’t just go and re-write the course, and even if I could, that’s a greater time investment than I can manage.

Step 1: Build an outline for myself of the semester’s assignments. Not just the major papers, but every little assignment. For many students, there’s no such thing as a “little assignment,” and if a piece is so little that it’s not work paying close attention to it, for me, then why am I assigning it? If the assignments are work asking them to do, they’re worth me being careful about scheduling.

Step 2: Make sure that links to all the assignments are in the same place. The calendar function might be the best place for this. Right now, the assignments are in three different places, and one of them (a list of all the assignments, sorted by week) is meant to be the go-to place for information, but that seems to be confusing. If I can set up the calendar, we’ll be okay.

Step 3: Weekly e-mail with the activity list for the week, with links. The fewer things students have to click, the more likely they’ll be to do the work. This goes back to the layout of the SmartSite, as well. If students have to click on a folder that says “Resources by Week,” a “Module” for the week, four different “Forums” for class conversation, “Assignments,” and a “Dropbox,” all of which take a long time to open, and none of which can include all the necessary information, they’re going to give up. I nearly gave up halfway through that sentence.

Step 4: Make sure that I have daily PowerPoints. I hate PowerPoint. I think that teachers often use it as an excuse not to actually teach, but in this case I think I need it. The LMS is so messy that I can’t reliably click around to find the next activity, so I need them all cued up, in the same place. As an added bonus, I can drop the PowerPoints into a folder so that students can access them. If they can find them.

Just to be clear: I don’t place any of the blame on the people who worked to build the course. I place it on the coding of SmartSite and on myself, for not having more time to get to know it before I started teaching. The team worked hard to smooth the process out, but they didn’t have much to work with.

I realize that I’m not making a larger point about teaching with technology, yet. Right now, I’m trying to get my hands around doing the task in front of me with the tools at my disposal, having come into this late. Some other time I’ll write about my assignments, how I’m building my PowerPoints, and other technology issues.

Syllabus 102: Absence Policies and Discrimination

6a01156e5d7bde970c0133ed0be78a970b-800wi“If you’re not here, you won’t learn.”

What is your attendance policy? Every university has their own policy, but they all boil down to “don’t miss more than a handful of classes, or you won’t be able to keep up.” Usually, it’s around 10% of the overall class time, so in a 16-week semester there might be three allowed absences for a twice-a-week class.

Except for athletes. At many universities (it’s different at community colleges and smaller universities), athletes attending university-sanctioned events are given extra absences. If a soccer player has four games that fall on my class days, he or she can miss those four in addition to the three allowed by the university.

I have issues with this policy. I’m not the first one to write about this, I’m sure, but I’m writing about it now, and my problem isn’t that athletes get to miss more classes than everyone else (although that’s a problem, too).

The problem with this policy is that it’s discriminatory. It gives able-bodied students allowances that other students are not given. That is, by definition, discrimination. Obviously, it discriminates against non-athletes, as well. Why shouldn’t we make the same allowances for the debate team or an a cappella competition? If it’s acceptable for athletes to miss out on class discussions, lectures, and in-class activities, with the assumption that they will catch up, why don’t we make the same assumptions for students representing the college in non-varsity capacities? Of course, those students are also being treated unfairly, but it’s the Americans with Disabilities Act that colleges should be worried about.

By giving special consideration to athletes, in terms of their attendance, in cases where attendance is a university policy (and not an individual determination of each instructor), the college is telling students with disabilities that they are subject to different rules than athletes. That is, or should be, unacceptable.

There is a religious component to this, as well. Almost every university, no matter how secular, closes for Christmas. Some make allowances for other religious observances, including Easter, Good Friday, and so on. Almost all of these allowances are Christian. In America, universities don’t close for Eid. They don’t shut down for Rosh Hashana. And students who are required by their faith to take those days off are rarely given the same exceptions that Christian students are. This, too, is discrimination. A Muslim student must be allowed to fast and pray on Eid, and if that absence impacts that student’s performance in the class, then we have penalized that student based on their religion. Even if we say, “you have three absences, and you are welcome to use one of them for Eid,” that student is at a disadvantage, compared to a Christian student whose religious observances are built into the school calendar: one of them can afford to get the flu, and one of them can’t.

Neither of these is an acceptable of students in a diverse educational setting.

Is the assumption that they will catch up?

I’m not sure, however, that the assumption is that athletes will “catch up.” That might be what we say, but I think it’s more likely that colleges don’t think it matters. Athletes are given special consideration all the time, in terms of their financial support, their housing, their legal status, and so on. In return, they provide the school a service by performing in athletic competitions, which in turn bring in revenue (considerable revenue, to the point where college athletics can be compared to slavery, but that’s a different discussion). All of that is true, and none of that matters. In fact, it makes the situation worse. If those are our arguments, then we are arguing that athletes are providing a quid pro quo, giving the college their skills in return for being treated differently than other students. They are, in other words, buying discrimination.

In effect, the university is not interested in whether or not the athletes succeed in the class (and I have worked at colleges where it was strongly encouraged that we give athletes high enough grades to keep them in the program, regardless of their actual work). The college may not be interested in their academic success, as long as they keep the gravy train rolling in.

Academic Success

I am, however, interested in my students’ academic success. All of them. That means two things, to me: getting athletes to class as often as possible, and keeping the environment around attendance fair and equitable. I refuse to be forced into discrimination by college policies.

Whenever possible, I have quietly done away with zero-tolerance attendance policies. I no longer take off fractions of a grade, or penalize in marginal ways students who have extra-curricular obligations, or who simply would rather not be in class. There are two ways I’ve taken this, and I’m not sure which is better. At times, I’ve done away with “excused absences” altogether. A student can miss so many classes (four or five, usually a couple more than the university allows) for any reason. Any more than that and the student can not get a grade higher than a C in the class. (I’ll write about “contract grading” later.) This applies equally to athletes, non-athletes, and students of every faith and interest.

At other times, I’ve replaced the attendance policy with graded in-class writing. In this case, attendance isn’t technically part of the grade, but students who show up more will get a higher in-class writing grade, and I anticipate for everyone to miss a handful of these in-class writings or quizzes, about as many as I would allow absences. There is research that this is the most effective way to incentivize student attendance and participation, but it feels like a cheat, to me, and I prefer the grading contract model, in part because it puts the choice in the hands of students.

Removing Discrimination

The most important part of any attendance policy, for me, is that it encourages students to be in class where they can learn from one another, and from me. At the same time, why penalize auto-didacts? Yes, we want to rope in the students who are less inclined to come to class than to sleep in, or to work on classes that they think are more important, but is an attendance policy the best way to do that? Is punishment the best answer, or is there a way to positively reinforce attendance, instead?

I don’t have the answers to this. I know that my students deserve to be treated like adults, and treated fairly. There is an argument that attendance policies mirror the workplace attendance policies that students will encounter. If they don’t show up for work, then they will get fired. That argument falls apart when it meets the athlete exception, however. There is no workplace that will allow employees to take the day off to play football, after all. Either we’re teaching them a life skill or we’re not. I don’t believe that’s the point of attendance policies.

The point of attendance policies is to get students into the classroom, where we can teach them, but those policies backfire when they discriminate against one population and privilege another. Those policies fail auto-didacts, and students whose family or employment situations demand more of them than “traditional” students’ do. In that way, too, attendance policies discriminate against students who are economically disadvantaged, and must work to put themselves through school, and against students with health issues (or relatives who have health issues). We often tell those students, “maybe this isn’t the semester to take this class,” but when we say that we are really saying, “the university setting isn’t the place for you, until you are more like a traditional student.”

I don’t know if getting rid of attendance altogether is the answer. I find it interesting that Golding, in the link above, found that his classes’ grades were better in semesters during which he had no attendance policy. Maybe he found what we should have understood all along: if we treat our students like adults, give them a reason to come to class beyond “you will be punished if you don’t,” expect them to be there, and then allow them to live up to that expectation, they will rise to the challenge. If we infantilize them with obviously discriminatory attendance policies (with exceptions that undercut the entire stated reason for the policies and undermine their – and our – credibility), then they will meet that expectation, too.

What do you think? Is it okay for attendance policies to discriminate against non-athletes? Would we benefit from doing away with them altogether? If we simple “forget” to put an attendance policy on our syllabus, then the course contract legally trumps the university policy, for our class, after all. What’s the best approach for our students, and for our classes?

Syllabus 101: Outlines and Values

Syllabi are Stressful

“A syllabus is a contract between you and your students.” Every semester, I’m reminded of this fact. The syllabus isn’t just a list of books and policies. It’s a legal document. If I don’t mention plagiarism, then I can’t penalize a student for plagiarism. If I leave out anything important, I’d better forget about it. Sure, I can revise and update during the semester, but if a student challenges it, that challenge may hold up in court. When I taught my first course, creating the syllabus gave me more anxiety than any other piece.

Some institutions have binders of syllabi, and I eventually stole liberally from those, but for the first couple of years I had no guidance in writing a syllabus. Everything I knew about it, I learned from downloading syllabi off the internet and working backwords from what others had done. Here’s some of what I learned:

Start with the basics

Course, university, semester, number, date, and time. I like to put these front and center, not just for the students but so that, when I’m going through my old syllabi, I know what I’m looking at. Contact information: my name, the classroom (I put this on there so that I don’t forget it, too), office hours, office location, telephone and e-mail. I put my cell phone on my syllabus so that students can text me, but YMMV (your minutes may vary).

Some people like to put the course description early. I see value in this, but I don’t like to do it. I include it later, though. Instead, I kick off with a welcome to the class and my most important rules. I usually put key guidelines in call-out boxes, as well.

For more basics about syllabus design, check out Robert Talbot’s “How to Make a Syllabus,” on the Chronicle of Higher Education. It, and parts two and three in the series, do an excellent job of defining the elements that comprise a syllabus, and I wish they’d been around when I started teaching. With that out there, I feel liberated to think more about the character of a syllabus than the characteristics.

Syllabus as Rhetorical

As composition teachers, we tell our students all the time that their writing is rhetorical, but I often forget that when I’m writing my syllabus. The desire to communicate the basic required information is so strong that it’s easy to forget all the other things that the syllabus communicates. It tells students what matters to us (by what we spend our time talking about: if half the syllabus is about our grading policies, then they know that the grade matters, to us).

This means three things: remembering who the readers are, communicating who we (as the authors) are, and remembering our purpose.

Why Have a Syllabus? 

Every course needs one. The university looks at them, and accrediting agencies look at them. They’re part of our annual review. Why?

The syllabus is a contract between the teacher and the student, and, as I mentioned above, it carries legal weight. (That’s not the only legal case citing a syllabus, either!) Talbot, above, quotes Hampton University’s guide, which says, “Although a syllabus is not considered a legal document… Courts view these as legal contractual documents.” We might not see them that way, but our students do, and courts will if it comes to that.

The syllabus is also the first point of contact we have with our students. Many professors spend the first day (or part of the first day) reviewing it. Whether or not that’s a good idea (I don’t love it, personally), it demonstrates how important we think the syllabus is: it’s worth devoting (at least) 3-5% of our overall class time to.

The Student-Centered Syllabus

At Santa Barbara City College’s 4Faculty website, Kristina Kauffman identifies six steps to building a “student centered” syllabus:

  1. Identify the purpose of the course.
  2. Develop learner-centered objectives.
  3. Structure the course to serve learner-centered objectives – The Course Outline.
  4. Structure the course to serve learner-centered goals – Building Lessons.
  5. Develop a calendar.
  6. Add support pieces.

Your “objectives” will probably come from the department. Every department I’ve ever worked in has had “student learning outcomes,” or something like them. Some departments even required me to tie every class activity and homework directly to one of these outcomes. Most aren’t that obsessive about it, but they outcomes provide a nice framework, and they’re usually student-focused, already. They often begin, “At the completion of this class, students will have developed proficiency in…”

It is important to remember that students are reading it. They have limited time and attention, and most are suffering from cognitive overload for all their classes having dumped syllabi on them in the same two-day period. They’re not going to remember the intimate details of yours after one reading. The easier it is to find the information later, the more likely they are to go back to it: large blocks of text are not your friend, here.

It’s also worth thinking about what students want out of a syllabus. I’ve never had a student ask me about the learning outcomes, but they always want to know how their grade is calculated, and what the homework load is going to be. Always. They might never read the cell phone policy, or the contact information for the tutoring center that I am required to put in, but they definitely know the grade percentages. It’s what they care about.

It’s about Values

A syllabus isn’t just student-centered, though. It also has an author: me. It communicates my values to my class, tells them the kind of teacher I am, and reveals (whether I mean it to or not) what is important to me. For me, that’s more important than any specific policy or regulation. My syllabus used to be 14 pages long, in an effort to communicate everything I had to say. Lately, I’ve been moving towards something shorter. I’ve added in some comics, to personalize it a little, and communicate some of the information visually. (This one is a favorite, communicating valuable information quickly.) More importantly, I tried to turn it into a conversation, the way I structure my classes. Instead of listing my name and office hours, I wrote questions like “Who are You?”; “What is This?”; “Why Should I be Here?”; and “How Does This Work?” I do all the expected things, like define the types of writing (“We will commit four types of writing in this class”), establish the grading policies (in that class, it was a grading contract), put in all of the “official information which I must include, which you must therefore read.” The important thing, though, is that they are all in my voice, and communicate my values about revision and communication with students.

Is that the best approach? I have no idea. It’s more rhetorically situated than the intimidating (but thorough!) information-dump that I used to hand out on the first day. It’s written with them in mind, and communicates my values, while serving as both an introduction to me and the course, and acting as a thorough (and legally binding, apparently) documentation of my plans and requirements for success. I’ll keep revising it, but this structure is the best I’ve put together, yet.

What do you want to know about building a syllabus? Are there any questions I can answer? What do you think is wrong (or right) with this approach?

Blog 101: What’s the Story, Here?

This year, I’m starting a PhD in Education, with a focus on writing, using online tools, and psychology. I’m looking forward to it like crazy. I love learning, talking about teaching, taking classes, reading, and research, so I’m expecting to do a lot of work and have a lot of fun. I’m also expecting to go a little crazy, but that’s par for the course, I understand. I want to learn more about why people make the writing choices they do, and how we can use 21st century tools to help them engage with writing, more fully.

I also suffer from sometimes-crippling anxiety and imposter syndrome. I honestly can’t understand why anyone would let me into a PhD program, let alone let me out of one with a degree. I fully expect that, at some point during the next couple of years, someone will sit me down and say, “We’ve just figured out that you’re here, and we’re going to have to ask you to leave.”

Part of that is that I have no idea what I’m getting into. I have a couple of friends with PhDs, and they’re been enormously helpful, but I don’t have a lot of frames for understanding how this works. I have a lot of facts, but not a lot of stories, and I work best with stories.

With that in mind, this blog is going to be my story: who I am (without, at least for now, any identifying details), what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, and what my challenges are. I know, I know, that everyone’s experience is different, and every university does this differently, but I also know that stories matter. I know, too, how many of my students are the first generation in their family to go to college. Some of those students will be the first generation to go to grad school, and beyond. Like me, they might not have a framework for this. If my story can make that experience less scary for someone, then it’s worth telling. As I’m someone, maybe it’ll make the experience less scary, for me. That counts.

This semester, I’m taking a basic statistics course, an overview of the scholarship on how people learn to write and teach writing, a seminar on being a PhD student, and a seminar on teaching first-year students to write. I’m only supposed to take three classes, but I really wanted to get these four done (also, one of them is only offered every two years, and I plan to be done with my coursework in two years).

That’s something I wish I’d known when I started planning my courses: some classes are only offered every couple of years. I did not know that, and it changes my plan. For the program I’m in, I have to take a minimum of 19 classes, although many people take more than that. If I only take the 19, I’ll be done in exactly two years and on to research.

In my program, “qualifying exams” are misnamed. They’re not tests, but a research project that gets presented to a committee that I will have been working with all year. I’m less worried about this than any other aspect of the project: writing is something I know I can do, and if I’m researching something I’m passionate about, I’ll be fine.

The key, of course, will be making sure that I’m passionate about my research. I’ll write more about that, later.

It’s hard not to look at a comic like Piled Higher and Deeper and be terrified about the prospect of the next few years, but I have to remember what I’m doing and why: I’m here to investigate topics in education and writing that I’m already interested in. When I talk about my plans for research, the people around me get excited, and I think that’s a good sign. My goals are to learn a lot, write a lot, get some articles ready for publication. If I look up in five years and I have a PhD, great. If I don’t, but I’ve accomplished those things, I think I’ll be okay.

For the moment, this blog will be weekly. I’ll be writing about my work, both as a learner and a teacher, my struggles, and my anxieties. I learn best when I’m writing, and no just focused on the work, so that’s what this is about. If it’s helpful for other people, that’s great, too.

That’s my story, today.