The syllabus, that quintessential first week document, has come under fire in recent years, as, for instance, in this much-discussed article by Mano Singham. Singham’s main problem with the traditional syllabus is that it creates an overly rigid course, one where the joy of learning is buried beneath an avalanche rules and perks and penalties.
I like Singham’s piece a lot, particularly its willingness to rail against what seems to be an inevitability in university life (death to classrooms! death to labs! death to grades!), but in some respects he has slain a paper tiger. Syllabi really aren’t so bad, when you get to know them.
For one thing, even Singham admits to a syllabus of sorts (though a greatly reduced and open-ended one). At some point, after all, even the most radical instructor is going to have to require that somebody does something to show they have made it somewhere — and those requirements will have to be communicated somehow.
Second, not all syllabi ignore the more important aspects of learning. My university now requires us to discuss course goals and outcomes and I have taken the opportunity to be as bold as I can be with them. I now list “gravitas” as one of the outcomes for my first year class. I’m almost giddy over it.
Though I understand the fear of burying students in rules, there is an obvious benefit in laying out the structure and nature of the course at the outset. It provides a level of openness and fairness that, one hopes, students appreciate. While it might sound appealing in theory to invite a class into a series of exciting discussions and breezily say we’ll let the grades take care of themselves, such a scheme would be open to all kinds of abuses. To paraphrase an old maxim about justice, grades must be fair and must be seen to be fair. Students have a reasonable expectation to know what’s expected of them and how an instructor is going to arrive at a grade. The syllabus embodies the challenge inherent in higher education: here is what is expected — let’s see what you got, kid.
My first-year syllabus runs to fourteen pages. It sounds like a lot, I know, but there’s a lot to include. Contact information for me, a list of texts, a schedule of readings, an explanation of the assignment structure, an explanation of what the various grades mean to me, pages from a sample essay, a discussion of plagiarism — it takes up a lot of room. For convenience, it’s three-hole punched, and to help students find it quickly, it’s on coloured paper. It’s not just an outline. It’s a user manual to the course, one that I hope students will keep handy and consult frequently.
Singham insists that such documents make students feel like they are being bribed, at best, or threatened at worst. I hope that’s not true. I hope that my detailed outlines make them feel like I care enough to give students all the help I can, right from day one.