Syllabus Rex

I’ve been having a very interesting Twitter convo for the past few days (as research for an article) about course syllabi, and if they’re too long (hint: yes), and why (lots of reasons, forthcoming in said article).

In the interest of full disclosure, and also because I am really maudlin about not teaching this year (not, o trolls, because I got fired for sucking so badly, but because I am having a baby), here are a few of my own old syllabi (some of them are in German, because, hey, I taught German), admin boilerplate and all.

I always prided myself on keeping them down to five pages or fewer, but as you can see, that often took some serious font-size finessing. “Enjoy!” (And no, I am not available at any of those email addresses or in any of those offices anymore, alas).

21 thoughts on “Syllabus Rex

  1. I heard tale of a 100 pg syllabus recently (for first years, no less) and have had it confirmed by the originator of the 100 pg syllabus. That’s more than we expect some first years to read in an entire semester, no?!


  2. In the dozen years it took to earn my degrees in art — particularly the six spent at a university — I hardly ever got a syllabus on the first day of class. Somehow I still made it through those semesters, and earned As. Without syllabi — 1 or 100 page ones — the world of academia kept spinning. People learned things, graduated, people even got tenure (although I never did). Face it, the now voluminous syllabi are defensive. They are for legal/administrative purposes, not for the students and surely not helpful to professors. Syllabi do not further teaching and learning. So refuse to write them. And see what happens.


  3. I completely disagree that syllabi don’t further teaching and learning. They set expectations for students and if right, give explicit and clear guidelines for the semester (and allow students to manage their workload by knowing when assignments are due etc)


    • My forthcoming article is actually about why setting meticulously defined expectations for students is the sign, seal and means of the university’s corporatization. I think the idea that students need/deserve such detailed expectations is actually a product of troubled times. But, coming from within these times, I def. see what you mean. The other issue, of course, is that most students don’t read or pay attention to said syllabus, and you end up getting emails asking questions whose answers are indeed on there.


  4. I know somebody that started adding a table of contents to the syllabus on the first page (of around 11-12 pages). This person does it in an absolutely not ironic way, and when I asked him/her about that, the answer was that “Research shows that attractive, non-conventional, but well-organized syllabi increase class engagement”. Example number one of why I desperately want to hire a specialist in SLA that comes from French or German, not Spanish. They would never parrot things like that


      • I am not necessarily against detailed syllabus. I am extremely ADHD. As a student, when what you had to do for the next class, what were the assignments and expectations, were not clearly spelled out, I tended to do very bad in those classes. So I value structure and clarity, and try to give the same to students (that means that a 5-6 page syllabus should be normal for me. I am near 10, because of all things the administration forces us to include).

        Regarding SLA, while there are many professionals in Spanish I highly respect (including the Chair of my grad school department), I think there is a tendency to infantilize what learning Spanish means. I’ve met too many professionals who don’t think there is or that there should be a difference between high school language learning and college. I may be wrong, but it doesn’t seem like that’s the case in German and French. With a few exceptions, the most exciting work I have read in SLA comes from people working in French or German.


    • In my program, one of the French profs teaches all language grad students the teaching methods/pedagogy class. It used to be language-specific and taught by an SLA person and/or director of language programs for each language. They’re all together now, and from what I hear, the quality of the class has decreased significantly.

      I am an SLA specialist, and in my experience, by far the most infantilizing comes from literature specialists who “dabble” in SLA in order to run language programs. Those who truly study SLA, theory and applied, don’t, in my experience. There’s also the flip side where some literature specialists get pissed off when students can’t acquire a certain proficiency in X amount of time (usually near-native proficiency in order to truly understand and appreciate–whatever that means–the literature they are teaching them). However, my sample is small and I personally know literature specialists who are excellent language professors, so I absolutely do not claim that this holds true for all literature specialists. Nor do I doubt there are some SLA specialists who aren’t very good.

      So, please don’t paint us all with the same brush. There’s a lot of exciting SLA work being done across all languages, but the biggest quantity comes out of ESL researchers.

      Also, table of contents? Wow. I had my first experience with that this summer with a 100% online language class, but that syllabus contained way more info than I would put in a syllabus, so the TOC with links to the pertinent sections was helpful for students to find the sections they needed (e.g. how to schedule your proctored exam, descriptions of major assignments, etc.) I had no control over that course, so I couldn’t change anything. I was plopped into it and told to run it.


      • Lonely ABD: I am sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you. I was talking from personal experience. As I have said, I know excellent SLAs in Spanish (I don’t know her personally, but in my opinion, what Amy Rossomondo is doing with the Acceso Project at KU is more valuable than 20 academic books by Harvard UP). But I have also been burned. As in professor who tried to kill my tenure because I only spoke Spanish 80% of the time in the only SPAN 101 class she came to observe in 7 years. Ze made a scandal that I didn’t deserve tenure because I didn’t follow ACTFL guidelines of 90% or more in the TL. Luckily, she wasn’t successful

        I am a lit professor, and the reason I would kill for a line of a real specialist in SLA is because the language coordinator position fell on my lap by default. We are a very small dept but with a lot of lower level language courses (fulfills gen ed requirement) and there is nobody else to do it. I am trying my best, and I have read almost everything I could get my hand on, but I still don’t feel qualified. So I absolutely agree with you that SLA is a serious discipline and not something that anybody can do (heck, I have taught almost everything I have been asked to, but I drew the line at phonetics. I am not qualified)



      • Spanish Prof:

        No worries! I totally understand where you are coming from. There’s newer literature that shows that you do not need to speak >90% TL in the classroom for students to learn the TL, and in fact, often the support in the L1 (English in the case of many FL classrooms in the US–this is harder in ESL classrooms where there may not be shared L1) can facilitate that learning. I, myself, do not use >90% TL in the classroom all the time, especially for beginning language classes.

        That prof sounds vindictive and mean and not representative of the SLA profs I know. I’m really sorry that that happened. 80% TL is not a bad number, nor is it a sign of a bad language professor. Ugh, I hate hearing stories like this because there is no one true best way to teach language. We’re finding out new things all the time.

        And like I’ve said, I know several literature specialists who do an EXCELLENT job leading language programs. In fact, my favorite supervisor is a lit specialist, who is amazing, and she didn’t have much formal linguistics training from her degree granting program. In my experience, the people who doubt themselves the most are often the ones who fail to give themselves enough credit for what they do know.


    • Lonely ABD: believe it or not, I don’t think the professor was vindictive. I think ze is rigid and, above all, a fundamentalist. Some people are religious fundamentalists. For this person, anything ACTFL says is the Bible and accepted uncritically. I once naively mentioned I was reading about The New London Group (of which I knew nothing at the time), and she almost had a heart attack, lecturing me for 15 minutes on better material to read.
      That said, the less interaction we have, the better. I just lost my professional respect for her


  5. My husband was kind of confused as to why it was taking me so long to finish my syllabus for this semester, but it all made sense tonight when he discovered it’s roughly the length of one of my dissertation chapter drafts (my chapters are short, though, so it’s not quite as bad as it could be!). I actually hand it out to them in chunks to mitigate the ridiculousness of it, but it’s all stuff I’m required to include, with the exception of a basic rubric I plan to use for all of their writing assignments. I don’t even know why I added that now; I guess the spirit overcame me.

    Because I worked a few semesters in the office that reviewed syllabi, I know that it’s not just that administrators want you to offer a detailed contract to students to make expectations clear. They also want to see you put it in writing that you’re going to provide feedback on drafts, for example, and state how you’ll provide and when you’ll hand them back, etc. All of this ensures as much as possible that everyone is doing the exact same thing and that when you abandon your class and don’t give them feedback on anything, they have a leg to stand on when they don’t renew your contract.

    I teach freshman comp, so obviously none of this applies to all those tenured profs, who would never do such a thing as not give their students feedback. The very idea is preposterous, which is why our tenured faculty regularly handout five page syllabi and some can hardly be bothered with a syllabus at all. But all that is supposed to change because we have some committee who’s recommended that everyone use a standard syllabus template no matter how ridiculous or inappropriate it might be for specific courses because they have some idea, based on no evidence, that doing so will help retention.


  6. I got the best results with syllabi when I maintained them on-line. Teaching music classes meant lots of digital audio and video. Linking those directly to the on-line syllabus made it easy for students to find them. Never mind that nobody looks at the paper syllabus after the first day of class.

    Not that any of that helped when I was at a for-profit and handed the corporate syllabus. That part was just depressing.


  7. Mine is 2.5 pages, of which 1 page is institutionally-mandated stuff. We run lean at the community college level. My students get more assignments, rubrics, expectations, handouts, and other whatnot — but not in the syllabus. That’s a quick field guide to the terrain, not a comprehensive statement about The Meaning Of Our Discipline & My Philosophy Thereof. If I need someone to listen to my extended thoughts on course structure, I’ll talk to the dog.


  8. I teach in mass communications after a 20+ year in network television, mostly in New York, including come time in legal/compliance. Part of the coursework I teach includes courses in media law and ethics. But my pre-television career in law enforcement has also influenced my rather lengthy syllabi, which – absent the day-to-day coursework schedule (subject to change) – runs an average of about 12 pages. Of course, some of the sections are mandatory for a church-affiliated private, such as our Christian mission statement, or otherwise required, like a statement on disabilities and academic advising, as well as academic integrity. Many of our faculty simply link to the school’s website where these policies are listed, but since we outsourced the website, many of the links are dead (go figure), so I’d much rather be safe than sorry. Probably the longest section in my syllabus templates (I build them for 1, 2 or 3 days per week courses) deal with miscellaneous subjects and begin with a statement that the syllabus is a binding contract; that by continuing to attend class and sign the attendance sheet, they agree to be bound by all terms and conditions. Sure it’s legalease, but after having several complaints filed against me in my first year and the dean sustaining them, I’ve learned that everything needs to be in writing. Students today, unfortunately, as as much “jailhouse lawyers” as those who are incarcerated are. They know the nuances, the in’s and out’s of the system, and how to get grades overturned or even dismissals from the classroom for disruption reversed. Too, I discuss how participation points are awarded and how, if you have an excused absence (75% of our students are in intercollegiate athletics, so they are ALWAYS excused absences), you can actually make up participation points by writing a short paper on what you missed, not just recapitulating the assignment or reading, but explicating what you got out of those assignments.

    Interestingly, I attended a National Communications Association Institute on Faculty Development workshop this summer and found that while most use relatively short syllabi, the recommendation of a number of consultants is to cover the major points using a PowerPoint the first day, and point out that the students are responsible for the full document. One recommendation was having them sign a statement they’ve read, understanding, and agree to abide by the terms and conditions. I like the short quiz to determine if they’re read it, but our students rarely bother with extra credit online quizzes, so I doubt that would work for any but those students who read the damned thing anyway! LOL


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