Please enjoy my newest on Slate, especially if you need a break from polishing the Thunderstorm Contingency Plan pages of your 99-page syllabus.

PS: as I am so vehemently quick to point out, as a freelancer I don’t often write my own headlines. But when I am allowed to keep the hed I wrote, that’s because it’s fucking awesome, and I am comfortable tooting my own horn about “Syllabus Tyrannus.” The end. ❤ ❤ ❤

24 thoughts on “tl;dr

  1. I went to college from 2001 to 2005 and a bunch of my classes had no syllabus at all. I don’t remember it being a problem — the professor would just tell you about assignments and exams as they came up. Bureaucratic mania has ramped up suddenly, and recently!


  2. I’m curious about the professors who have exhaustive syllabi not as a CYA maneuver, but because they honestly believe that These Things Must Be Said. Must they? And can’t they be said in smaller chunks, distributed through the first few class sessions?


    • Yeah, me too. I think it’s a case of total professorial disconnect, total inability to put themselves into the shoes of students, and think: I’m a student. What will I actually read? What will I actually want to do? Not that we should cater 100% to those whims (otherwise we would only assign beer), but it’s vitally important to think about how students think. Profs who are proud of their 12-page syllabi have either totally forgotten how students think, or never knew, or were themselves such super-students they don’t know how *most* students think. I am “lucky” in that I was a terrible student as an undergrad, and I think (a la a recovering addict being the best drug counselor) that actually made me a better professor.


  3. I saw some enormous syllabi as a TA, even in classes that didn’t seem to warrant them. One thing that I noticed (especially in TAing for the same professor on more than one occasion) was that faculty (particularly senior faculty) rarely deleted anything from their syllabus, they just added. So a five page document became six, then seven, then eight pages and so on as they added more and more information about laptop policies or plagiarism or what have you, but never modified, trimmed, or deleted any of the existing sections. This was part of a larger problem of syllabus-fossilization, because a lot of these faculty didn’t bother to update their syllabi at all, except to incorporate a university-mandated paragraph, or to riff on their current pet peeve about today’s kids. Maybe this was just my institution, though. It certainly did make me determined to keep my syllabus short (and it is – excluding the schedule of readings, it’s about two-and-quarter pages).


  4. Universities, and especially graduated programs, are not “vulnerable to lawsuits.” They are in fact extremely invulnerableto lawsuits, especially in academic matters. I don’t know much about the Thode case, but it’s entirely possible the grade she got was capricious, arbitrary, and intended to force her out of the program. It’s not like there’s a whole lot of transparency or accountability for grading decisions.

    It would be nice if every professor were sane, fair, and rational, but that’s not the world we live in. A measure of judicial scrutiny would help to keep programs honest and keep them from abusing academic judgments to ruin students’ lives.


  5. My syllabus last year was 2 pages excluding the schedule of readings. I was happy, as an adjunct, that the boilerplate the University gave us was actually useful (disability policy, relevant addresses/emails, etc.). But that’s one case. I did notice that students seemed to take the written syllabus as permission not to engage in the class discussion of policies, meaning many missed both written and oral instructions from day 1. Next time, I’m sticking to short description (3 lines!) and due dates and anything mandated.


      • I’m not sure it’s fair to characterize a thorough syllabus as CYA. Even adjuncts have a lot of power over students, which they can potentially use capriciously to the student’s detriment. A syllabus which includes clear information about what a student can expect and how grades are determined is a contract that protects both parties. Any contract should be carefully written and thorough, which sometimes means it will be long. If someone is too lazy read the contract, that’s their problem.

        Students are completely rational in caring a great deal about their grades because it’s the only thing anyone else cares about. I don’t think it’s too much to ask that students be given a clear idea of what the terms are at the outset. I think your suggestion about differentiating among the different kinds of information in a syllabus is a good one, but all of it should be important, even the boilerplate, or it shouldn’t be in there.


      • Boilerplate that the administration forces us to put in there about “learning outcomes” Is insulting gibberish and has no place anywhere anyone is actually trying to learn something.


      • But what pedagogues care about and what students actually want to read are two different things. Students DO NOT CARE about stuff like that, they really don’t. They just want to have a good time in class, learn some things, get decent grades.


      • @saymwah: I looked at the CHE essay on learning outcomes that you mentioned. While there is nothing wrong with alerting students to the goals you are setting for them, I am not sure that a syllabus is the best place to do so, rather than, say, a handout on that day in class. Or, as we do at my university, a separate document posted to the Blackboard website for the course. But I am also struck by the use of Bloom’s Taxonomy in the CHE essay, a framework for evaluating K-12 education that administrators (and apparently a few professors) have embraced as a simplistic approach to ‘higher’ education as well. It didn’t surprise me that the instructor who promoted the use of this primary education device teaches math, a subject that continues to be taught via the model of K-12 pedagogy, except perhaps at its highest levels. I think we expect more of courses, and teaching, in the humanities and social sciences.


      • And there is also, once again, a huge difference between the priorities of what well-meaning educators who haven’t been students in years (and were probably never mediocre students! and have no idea how those folks feel!), and the priorities of students–not idealized students, but actual, real, living breathing human students today, who, in my experience, could not give TWO FUCKS about “learning outcomes” or any other syllabus gibberish, and want the syllabus to tell them a) when shit is due, and b) how much of shit counts for what in grading.


      • @Barbara Piper
        You’re right that mathematics courses are taught using Stone Age pedagogy, even among people who say they care about teaching. Believe it or not, that blogger’s ideas are comparatively cutting-edge. I appreciate the perspective.


      • @Rebecca Schuman
        Most people who teach math don’t even bother including no-brainer info like that unless they think they’ll get in trouble for not putting it on a syllabus. That’s if they even give out a syllabus at all. There is so much contempt for the students it drives me nuts.

        I don’t know whether students read learning outcomes, but I’d like to think they could be used to at least give students an answer to the age-old question of required math courses: Why are we doing this? A lot of instructors can’t answer that, so they cut-and-paste the department boilerplate. More contempt.


  6. I can’t shut up about this because I can’t stop
    thinking about it. I think U.S. attitudes towards “academic judgment” are directly analogous to U.S. attitudes towards parenting.

    Because we like to believe that all parents are trying their best and have their child’s interests at heart, the government stays way, way out of parenting decisions. The unfortunate result is that some abusive parents literally get away with murder. Millions more ruin their children’s lives because there are no laws protecting children against certain kinds of harmful or incompetent parenting.

    As I said earlier, any university’s or faculty member’s fears about vulnerability to lawsuits are completely unwarranted. If you read through the caselaw, you will see that the vast majority of such disputes were decided in favor of the institution. A very few of these were frivolous whining by a disgruntled student, but many more look to me like situations where the student-plaintiff had a legitimate complaint but lacked the legal traction to get justice because of the enormous deference given by U.S. courts to “academic” decisions.


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