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?

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