This Week in Class Prep: Syllabus Season

escher12It’s that time of year again for academics around here: the fall term is closing in, and that means it’s time to finalize the syllabi for our classes.

For me, this is a process that generates equal parts enthusiasm and irritation. I enjoy the optimism of course planning: it’s fun to anticipate the intellectual sparks that can fly if you juxtapose readings in a clever way; it’s exciting to review the readings themselves and be reminded of how interesting and provocative and artful they are; it’s challenging to think hard about what you hope students will learn and practice and achieve in a class, and then to tweak and add and structure assignment sequences and course requirements that you believe will support those goals.

At the same time, it is frustrating trying to formulate class policies that often have little to do with those educational goals and a lot to do with managing student behavior and expectations — not to mention anticipating complaints and appeals. Rebecca Schuman is right that once upon a time, a course syllabus was a much more minimalist document. I still have the one-page (mimeographed!) outlines distributed at the outset of my own undergraduate classes. Things they usually didn’t include: attendance policies; policies on late assignments; statements on plagiarism and academic integrity; deadlines for (or detailed information about) course assignments; explanations of course objectives or ‘learning outcomes’ … the list could go on.

I actually think there are good reasons to include most of these things — I think it’s progress, not a problem, that (for instance) it is now standard to include information about accessibility and accommodation and many of the other support systems in place to help students succeed, while expanding our syllabi to explain academic matters in more detail implicitly acknowledges that students arrive in a classroom from a range of backgrounds. A lot of what used to be taken for granted shouldn’t have been assumed then either. Just saying, as Schuman suggests (facetiously, of course, as is her style, but also with some serious intent) that “what you need is to learn and learn well” is to mystify both the process and the goals of our work in an unproductive way. I also find it very helpful, just in practical terms, to have a common document we can all turn to when there’s a question about how the class operates. Everyone, I always point out (especially when being asked for special treatment), is bound by the terms of the syllabus, including me.

At the same time, I worry that the more we try to spell everything out, the more we unintentionally send the message that anything not made explicit in the syllabus does not apply. And I get frustrated at some of the things it now seems to be necessary to spell out. Why should I need to tell students that they are expected to attend class, do the readings, and turn in their assignments? What else would they think is required of them? Indeed, why else did they register in the course in the first place? Why, too, does my individual syllabus have to reiterate the terms of university-wide policies, as if (and indeed, this can turn out to be the finding, on appeal) a student isn’t bound by Dalhousie’s policies on plagiarism if I didn’t say so in so many words? Where is the role of common sense, in some of this, and of basic respect — not just for everyone else in the classroom, but for the underlying purpose of the whole enterprise? So much of my syllabus is actually aimed, not at the students working in good faith to make as much of the opportunity as they can (and occasionally needing some consideration, because life happens), but at students who would rather not — not do the reading, not show up, not do preparatory work that will make their longer assignments better, not, not, not … unless I coerce them. I try to make the syllabus a positive document, but 20 years of teaching has taught me that it is most needed in the negative situations.

One of the things I had to do for my promotion file (now, thank goodness, all assembled) was collect copies of the syllabi for every class I’ve taught at Dalhousie since I started here in 1995. It was more interesting than I expected, looking them over. I haven’t changed my approach dramatically: I’ve always tried to be clear, specific, and detailed. The tone has varied somewhat, though, as I have experimented with being more formal or more friendly, more rule-oriented or more goal-oriented. At this point I don’t think there is one right way of writing a syllabus. (I’m also very aware that context makes a big difference: for instance, this instructor has a lot more control than I do over who joins her class and when — our add-drop period is over 2 weeks long, and students do not need my permission to enroll, so I have to think about students’ relationship to the syllabus differently. Also, and this is just personal, I guess, I hate the idea of spending that much time reading a boring document aloud. I prefer to hit on the key points then come back to larger issues of purpose and motivation over the term, as we approach different tasks.) The only rule I’d stand behind absolutely is clarity — both in how you actually write the document and in how you understand and communicate its purpose to your class. I now think of the syllabus as one important part of the scaffolding of a successful course. Ideally, it’s both stable and open enough that you and your students can rely on it and yet go beyond it to the real course content.

If you’re curious what my current fall syllabi look like, I’ve posted drafts of them here (and last fall’s are here).

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5 Responses to This Week in Class Prep: Syllabus Season

  1. Is the length and structure of your English 1010 course typical for your university? Also, is English 1010 meant for freshmen?

    My syllabi for my high school courses are far shorter than yours. I understand your reasons for elaborating on all that you do in your syllabi. My situation is quite a bit different. I have at least two audiences for my syllabi: my students and their parents. In my syllabi, I try to lay out the basic guidelines, rules, and expectations, as well as summarize the course curriculum, grading system, and types of assignments. I try to strike a balance between giving students and their parents concrete information about the class and not overcommitting to things I might not be able to adhere to. When I go over the syllabi in class, I fill out some of the details verbally. Also, I always end the syllabi on a positive note.

    I’m struck by how you spell out when specific topics, readings, and assignments will be due or covered in class. You must be able to count on a certain amount of predictability in your schedule. Such predictability simply doesn’t exist at my high school. I spend a good portion of my summer planning out the year for my classes, but I have to keep it flexible because I never know when there will be something that will interrupt my plans: another teacher’s fieldtrip, early dismissals for teacher training, snow days (increasingly rare in Seattle), students missing class for sports competitions, school assemblies, endless standardized testing, and so on.

    Your section on writing assignments prompts me to ask: what, as writers, would you like your students to know and be able to do when the arrive at the university? I know that’s not a simple question, and maybe you’ve already written about it elsewhere.

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Yes, it’s aimed at first-year students, though a few students take it later in their degree in order to complete their writing requirement. The length of the course is typical. We do have some “full-year” courses, meaning they run two full terms (so, on our university calendar, September to April), but over the past decade or so, the trend has been strongly towards one-term courses, as students (and faculty) like the flexibility. I miss the longer courses, which allowed more content and better continuity. Plus you can build up much more of a relationship with your students over two terms!

      I definitely don’t consider parents an intended audience for my syllabus! It’s for the students — and then (potentially) for administrators in the event of a problem, or if a student wants a transfer credit for it. I give out more information about things like grading and assignments in other handouts — I have a detailed rubric for essay grading, for instance. Like you, I cover some issues verbally, but I find it is crucial to have a written statement of requirements and expectations, as who knows what students will write down or remember! I like the idea of ending on a positive note! I have tried to incorporate some cheerful moments into mine too.

      I think university is quite different from high school in terms of predictability. Of course, there are always possible complications — such as snowstorms (very common here in the winter term, though actually Dalhousie rarely closes) or strikes. But barring those emergency situations, we have three scheduled classroom hours every week, so I just plan for those and then deal with upsets if they arise. I think my scheduling may be unusually specific — I remember a student once saying she really appreciated my classes because she always knew what was going on, as if she wasn’t altogether used to that. Sometimes it feels a bit rigid, but I prefer that to uncertainty and confusion!

      The question about writing assignments is a complicated one, you’re right. I am often shocked at how weak students’ understanding of basic grammar and punctuation is: I do a lot of what I consider “remedial” work on things like apostrophes or subject-verb agreement that surely high school graduates should already know how to get right! I would like to be able to move more quickly to higher-order writing issues, editing skills, and so on. I also sometimes wish incoming students had a better sense of literary history, and more experience interpreting literature rather than focusing on authors, contexts, plot summaries, or purely personal responses.

      But really, what I would like best would be to see them arrive excited about literature — open-minded about what treats might lie between the covers of their books! First-year English classes can be really emotionally draining because so many of the students (never all, thank goodness!) seem to see them purely as a chore, a hoop to jump through, and it’s challenging to get them to meet me at least half-way. At the same time, one of the great pleasures of teaching a first-year class is seeing students who didn’t know they were going to be interested get drawn in. I was just such a student myself, after all!

  2. Ali says:

    I just looked at your draft syllabus for your George Eliot course. Wow! What a great syllabus! I would be so interested to sit in on your classes! I just reread Middlemarch in the winter and spring for the second time (I read it about seven years ago), and I posted here about using your book club notes. That is most definitely a book that can stand up to multiple readings, and honestly, I don’t understand why people approach it with such trepidation. Sure, there were sections that I didn’t understand fully, but that did not diminish my enjoyment of it in the least. I am currently rereading The Portrait of a Lady (I so rarely reread books, but I found myself on a rereading kick lately), and I am thinking of picking up Daniel Deronda next. I hope you do some of your class postings (I think you call them, “This week in my classes,” or something similar) because I will be very interested to see what happens in your class!

    • Rohan Maitzen says:

      Thanks, Ali! I’m currently fretting that it has too many moving parts. I like to spread students’ grades out over various components and incorporate ways of sustaining more ongoing engagement — but that gives us all a lot to keep track of. So I may yet tweak it a bit more. I will certainly be posting about it (and my other class) once the term begins. I haven’t taught a grad seminar since 2010, so I’m curious myself to see how the experience may be different this year.

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