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?

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