Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The Syllabus Also Rises

By Worth Weller
Continuing Lecturer
Department of English and Linguistics

Much like Ernest Hemingway’s thinly veiled memoir The Sun Also Rises, a syllabus can provide a road map into an instructor’s troubled soul. While it is not clear that many students read their classroom syllabus, it is fully clear even to students that the document carries an imperative with as much moral elegance and nuances as a bullfight: from a distance it is a beautiful spectacle of classroom expectations; up close it is messy and gory.

For example:
  • Late penalties – not only what are they, but left unsaid is the question are you really going to calculate and enforce them (in my case, no: there is a reason I teach English and not math!);
  • Attendance – are you really going to take it and enforce penalties (in my case, I teach online);
  • Discussion etiquette – yes, of course, be polite, but are you really going to read and check each post (nope);
  • Course goals – these can be as poetic as the red cape of the matador gracefully swinging in the sunshine on a hot Spanish afternoon, but do the students care (again, nope);
  • Plagiarism – no matter how you word it, can you really get students to understand in the Internet age that copying and pasting shortcuts learning (thank heavens for Turnitin and SafeAssign; at one time I was not in favor of these, now I see how they can streamline grading and impress students with the gravity of the offense).

Other problematic issues that call up my inner demons include the basic fact that students are always one step ahead of you when trying to set down on paper the rules and regulations of a classroom. 

Have you ever gotten this question for example: “I see that I have enough points now to pass the class; do I really have to turn in the final paper?”

On a related front a syllabus can quickly get out of control and turn into a bulky bureaucratic document the envy of EPA and OSHA officials across the land – I think at one point I had a syllabus that was seven pages long! Even I refused to read it.

One other issue I struggle with is the matter of “tone.” Do I want to sound like the hip college instructor I fancy myself to be, or do I let my more realistic curmudgeonly and scolding feelings emerge?

Like the bullfighter, I find myself dodging and twirling my way through these issues hoping in the end I won’t be gored by a student who finds the weak spots in my syllabus in order to justify their own poor performance.

I can take comfort however knowing I’m not the only one who loses sleep over these concerns, as just this week the New York Times ran a lengthy and eloquent piece on the art of syllabus writing by Princeton professor Christy Wampole (be sure to read the comments section too!). And for more ideas, thoughts and examples about these issues check out CELT’s web page “Syllabus and Course Design.”

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