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What is the Point of the Syllabus?

It’s August. That means it's the time of year when faculty are starting to think about syllabi for their courses. I’ve heard faculty talk about how it grows page upon page each year as they write more and more rules in order to cover – and perhaps control – all kinds of student behavior. And there are many cartoons, like this one, about how when students invariably ask questions, those answers are, of course, in the syllabus...

Another post on the syllabus came across my Twitter feed by Sara Fulmer, who writes about Preparing a Learning-Focused Syllabus.  This got me thinking, “What is the point of the syllabus?” As Mano Singham argues in his AACU piece Death to the Syllabus,there should be no more syllabi. Says Singham, “It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.” (emphasis mine)

I am required to have a syllabus for every course I teach, even though online or hybrid/blended courses don’t need the traditional syllabus because of the way that course guides and modules are set up if you adhere to best practices in online education and teaching. But I make one anyway, and link it on the content management system page for my courses. And there is language I am required to put on the syllabus, though I have heard of some faculty making that an appendix and putting it on their course management page, which is an interesting idea, to keep the syllabus about the course.

But as Singham notes, where in the syllabus is learning addressed? I have attempted to add learning goals to the syllabi for my classes. And Fulmer's point is about creating syllabi that are more learner-centered rather than teacher-focused. In other words, we can make syllabi more collective in spirit – about what is possible in the course – rather than generate a list of rules that indicate how a student can lose points for every possible misstep.

In my attempt to make my syllabi more about learning, I include a section about my learning goals for students in my course. After going over those on the first day, I  pause to have students fill out a card that notes what they would like to focus on for learning in the course. I (try to remember to) give out those cards again at the mid-point of the semester in order to have students note how they think they are doing on their goals, which gives me a chance to respond in kind to them about whether I agree with their assessment of their progress or not. I think this is a great chance for individual feedback to students about how they are doing in my class.

I was also struck by a column in Chronicle’s Vitae the other day written by David Gooblar, which advocates putting more images in a syllabus, almost making it read like a graphic novel. You can read that post here. I'm an art historian. I should find ways to "art-up" my syllabi, and may do just that this August.

Faculty: What do you think about your syllabus? Do you want to change it up, or is it a list and a contract that sounds more like legalize? Do you want to keep it that way? Do you feel at your institution you have to?

Students: what say you about the syllabus in a course? Do you read it? Why or why not?


2 thoughts on “What is the Point of the Syllabus?

  1. Victoria Russell

    I've turned my syllabus into 'chapter one' of our course narrative. I still have the required pieces (per my institution) but the language is conversational and I incorporate images into the 'story.' This is more easily done with my class that is a semester long role-play 'game,' but it's working out so far in the syllabi I've drafted for my more traditional classes. I'm working hard to move away from a 'contract' mentality---if anything, my syllabi seem to be more about sharing my instructional thinking from the beginning so that students and I can have some conversations early on about how to shape the class. I should note that as long as I check off the boxes for institutional/college requirements, I have a lot of freedom to explore how my classes are presented and organized. I know it's not that way everywhere!

    1. Gretchen McKay

      I really like that idea and I'm going to be changing up how I do the syllabus for my First Year Seminar, which is all Reacting to the Past games for the duration of the semester. I am teaching intro art history as a blended class, and there is SO MUCH information in the course shell, I am not printing out a bunch of copies and wasting paper. I will have them all come in on the first day and log on to the course and read the Course Guide. I will put an appendix with the information that "must go" on the syllabus. I want to think about images for the FYS, too. Thanks for the comment! Miss you!


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