Syllabus Matters

I was listening to a podcast last week about teaching, though I won’t mention which one in this case.  I didn’t enjoy it, not because it wasn’t helpful (though it wasn’t very helpful), but because it was quite consdescending to students.  I don’t mean that it talked about students how all of us faculty do from time to time, complaining about them as we do about the weather, then moving on to more important matters.  Instead, this one treated them as if they were willfully ignorant, almost stupid, at times, and that’s an approach to students that I simply can’t abide.

The episode I listened to was about syllabi: what to include to help students through the class and even how to set it up.  That would have been fine, though I got the impression their syllabi were twenty pages long, given the amount of information they felt compelled to include and the detail they seemed to go into.  Then again, given the way they thought about students, that makes sense.

The part that really stood out to me, though, wasn’t about the content of the syllabi at all.  Instead, it was about getting students to read syllabi (or, I suppose, remember what’s on syllabi).  I’ve heard such ideas before, but this time, I was particularly struck by this approach.  They mentioned the traditional ideas, such as having students sign the final page and turn that back in to prove they read it (when, in fact, we’re just reinforcing the idea that syllabi are contracts, which makes the relationship between professor and student a business one, though we often get angry at the consumer mentality of students).

One idea was the quiz over the syllabus, whether “open syllabus” or from memory the next class.  The assumption behind this approach is that students will then read the syllabus and remember it.  The real goal is to have students not ask professors any questions that are covered on syllabi, a sin akin to Judas or Brutus, to hear most professors talk.

The problem, though, isn’t that students don’t read syllabi or listen to us when we present various policies concerning our classes.  Some don’t, of course, but many do.  I’ve watched students highlight their syllabi as I’ve talked about various parts of the course, and many keep it in the front of their notebook for that class.  The problem is that we’re all human, and we forget what we read two months ago (and in five or six different classes with rules and regulations that can be quite different) unless we go back and refresh our memory.

Lest we criticize students for not refreshing themselves, we should simply start paying attention to how faculty talk and all we forget.  I’ve sat in too many meetings where faculty ask questions about material that has already been covered (sometimes in the same meetings) or that is readily available in the faculty handbook or on the website.  Professors come to meetings having been asked to read various documents we will then vote on, only to have one person after another ask questions that are clearly contained in those documents.

The problem isn’t with students; it’s with humanity.  Many of us don’t do what we’re supposed to do, certainly.  Even when we do, though, we forget material.  We shouldn’t be those professors who wear t-shirts that say something like “It’s in the syllabus.”  Instead, we should answer their questions the same way our colleagues do when we ask about material clearly covered in our meetings.  At worst, we should kindly explain that the answer can be found in the syllabus, not in a way that supposedly teaches them a lesson, but to remind them that we’re all doing research all the time.

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