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?