It’s in the Dmn Syllabi, Dmnit!

Over the past few weeks I have openly and egregiously lied about “reading the terms and conditions” of various products I’ve installed. If I were to extend this to years, were we living in a dystopia, I’d already be made factionless and an Avox. I didn’t read that stuff for ITunes 1.0, and I won’t read it when I install ITunes 8.8b, so I’ve just assumed that there was something about a new U2 album appearing without warning and there’s nothing I can do about it. For all I know, when I installed DVDFab9, I agreed to a condition stating, “Andy Black eats boogers.”

And yet, both mentally and verbally, I’m a big fan of the phrase, “It’s in the syllabus!” To students, it’s gentler; with other faculty, it’s a mantra that seems to define our pains. To wit:

I’ve been her, and the unsaid point of that comic is that a caring and intelligent teacher took the time to explain every detail, answer every potential question, and craft a document that’s an exhaustive and fair contract. The syllabus is the product of intense laboring – I don’t get much research done in the week before class because I’m writing and rewriting it. As a PHD student, I had a teaching mentor tell me that it was (more or less) irresponsible not to include a reading schedule, so I’ve included one ever since. I have a page where I explain participation grades and how they’re calculated, a page where I explain tips to succeed: my ENG105 syllabus is longer than most Raymond Carver short stories.

I also give a syllabus quiz, a mind-numbingly easy open-book affair that always ends up prompting confusion. The syllabus quiz is supposed to isolate and identify the most significant parts of the syllabus, and this practice – while necessary – leads me to challenge myself. Why can’t the whole syllabus be as concise as the quiz? Do I really need the section where I explain “virtual participation” as though it is the sixteenth amendment? Do I really need all the paper descriptions, which detail assignments that are four months away? Do I really need to explain to them what Canvas is?

The easy answer to this is that old truism that a syllabus is a contract, and it “protects you just as much as it does me”. But I wonder if it’s that kind of thinking that, like a rubric, suggests a model of neutrality and authority that we don’t really have or want as teachers, or at the very least have been nurturing critical student-centered pedagogies to revise. In my rethinking of the underlying ideologies and theories of the syllabus, my attitude is starting to be something less like “It’s in the syllabus (exclamation point) to “Why is it in the syllabus (question mark)”

Because in the case of my dauntingly exhaustive, prolix, and somewhat idiosyncratic syllabi, I probably wouldn’t read it either, and I honestly can’t be called upon to remember everything that’s in it. Since it’s the first document that my students read, I don’t know that I want to be a textual representation of me as a teacher. So far all I know, I’m contractually obligating my students to acknowledge that I eat boogers.

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2 thoughts on “It’s in the Dmn Syllabi, Dmnit!

  1. As my colleague Natalie Houston pointed out on Profhacker, there’s an important design element to the syllabus that profs often forget: it has to be read, understood, and used if it’s going to do its syllabic magic. That means not overloading the document with too many different details, especially in the first week of a course. The nice thing about a blog or forum is that you can provide initial overviews, then periodically update with details as you need them, or as students demand clarification. Course policies and at least a general schedule is fine up front. I think detailed descriptions of assignments etc may be better later on, but YMMV. In terms of the first day, I’ve consistently done a pair and share exercise where students pair up with a partner on the first day, read the syllabus together, then develop a question. Within 5 minutes they’re all chatting away, and we can have a more directed discussion of aspects of the course that interest or puzzle them, rather than me droning on. This has worked for me at every level I teach, and is better than the cringey icebreakers I’ve read about.

  2. I for one am a Chronic liar about terms and conditions myself, but the one thing I at least do remember is to keep my Syllabi(1) somewhere nearby throughout the year. Whether it’s to check to see if I can sleep in tomorrow (because some professors have the days there is no class on the syllabus due to their conferences or something…) or to see if I need to pull an all nighter or if the late policy is lenient enough for me to go to bed after work.

    That doesn’t mean I read it all the time, or even read it all the first day, but none of my professors have ever handed me as daunting of a syllabus as the terms and conditions of Itunes. (Which of course is why who owns the stuff you buy through Itunes is questionable…)

    (1) Syllabus would be Syllabi in plural due to being from a Latin noun. However the word comes from a misprint from Cicero, which makes the actual latin noun “Syllabus” a fictional one. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=syllabus

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