On the Syllabus as EULA and Other Teaching Anxieties

We’re an anxious bunch, academics, aren’t we? Cue a new school year and we’re (again) fretting over whether Google is making us stupid, if using laptops in class leads to shallow thinking, and generally whether electronics and digital media are producing a generation of self-absorbed, vapid, know-nothings who will drive the nation into the ditch. (Don’t look now, but those schooled in in the pre-digital era have done a pretty good job of that already, thank you very much.)

Apparently we’re now supposed to be anxious about the syllabus too. The author, Rebecca Schuman, has a long-standing (and perfectly legitimate) ax to grind with our deeply flawed university system; I find she’s always worth reading, even if I don’t agree with her. However, in her desire to indict the entire system, she mistakes personal experience and anecdotal evidence with universal practice. (Perhaps the best example is “The End of the College Essay,” which, as a writing instructor, is both wrong and wrongheaded.)

So it is with this article on the syllabus. I think one key question that needs to be asked: what do administrators actually require you to put in your syllabus? For my part, I include the bare minimum, usually just a link—which is a single line—pointing to my institution’s policies on attendance, academic misconduct, etc. Contrary to Schuman’s piece, my syllabus has been getting shorter in recent years, and it’s a conscious choice on my part. I provide only the essentials pertaining to materials, course goals, grading, how homework will be collected and graded, other essential expectations, along with a tentative schedule. (I stress the tentative part.) It’s rarely longer than 3 pages.

Why? Because a syllabus is a document I always go over in the first day of class, when I’m just getting to know the students and they’re getting to know me. Is this how I want to start our relationship, with a document packed with legalese that sounds, as Schuman describes, like a software end-user license agreement? Nope.

So I go the opposite route. I always say on the first day that my syllabus is a plan but that “we’re going to have to work this out together.” Ours will not be a relationship governed by bean counting. Their education is a negotiation of my expertise in the subject matter and their learning objectives and interests. I make it very clear that they’re responsible for their own learning, but I’m the expert in the room there to help point them in the most productive directions. Critics might assume (wrongly) that this means caving to an already self-centered population of students, but it’s not. At all. It’s actually helping them shape their education around their interests by exposing them to new ways of thinking about something they already have a decent handle on. (BTW, it’s called “scaffolded learning,” it’s kind of a thing, and it’s considered to be good pedagogical practice. Kthx.) In class, this generally means time I would have spent preparing and presenting lectures is instead shifted to managing classroom discussion and working individually with students. It’s what I’d like to call a “win-win” as it’s more interesting and engaging for me and, more importantly, for the students. Such a structure encourages them to establish a relationship with me, which, as it so happens, also turns out to be essential to providing actual long-term benefits from a college degree.

Do I have students who challenge such a loose structure, where very little is spelled out in syllabus? Of course. Almost always. But it’s only one or two per class, and sometimes none. And here’s the thing, if they have a real problem with it or think they’re being treated unfairly, they can make a complaint through the proper academic channels. Let me say this again a different way: if they don’t like this lack of rigid rules to define our relationship, they can choose to bring the bureaucracy onto themselves. However, in seven years of teaching I’ve never had a single student actually file a formal complaint because they discover—lo!—that it’s easier to hash out our differences and work out a compromise though a human conversation. Do they appreciate this? Not in the slightest. In fact, I think the ones who go this route resent the hell out of me. I don’t lose much sleep over it.

This is because the other 90+% of my students seem to like it just fine. In their evaluations they’ve been known write things like “this class was life-changing,” “he’s the best teacher I’ve ever had,” and “I wish I would have taken his class earlier in college.” I would humbly suggest that this praise stems from me treating my students like the complex, intelligent, curious human beings they are, and we happen to be meeting at a very exciting (and perplexing) time of their lives, where they need—perhaps more than anything—to feel comfortable bouncing ideas off someone knowledgeable that they respect and trust. I suspect that throughout their educational history, they’ve mostly had teachers who have talked at them. They get a lot of that in college too, and in some disciplines it’s unavoidable. But this is why I’m in the humanities.

13 of the 15 students in my advanced fiction workshop this semester are students I’ve previously taught. Before class started, we talked about our summers. We joked a lot and discussed what we’d been reading, what movies we’d watched, what games we were playing. Then I outlined my plan for the course and answered their questions. Many of those answers were, “Well, that’s up to you. I’m just here to help.” Over those couple hours, lots of laughter was shared. (Which is also a conscious strategy to increase engagement and improve learning, btw.)

So no, my students aren’t incapable of deep thought, entirely self-centered, and afraid of hard work. And guess what? My students aren’t so different than anyone else’s. I don’t ban technology in my classes because, by and large, students are engaged and paying attention to our conversation. For those who aren’t? Well, I did a lot of crossword puzzles in the back row of lecture halls as an undergraduate too. If they prefer a structured (dare I say spoon-fed?) learning environment, they’ve got two options: drop, or suffer through the pain of me trying to get to know them.

A syllabus is a necessary and useful document, but it is not a contract. Relationships are built on trust, and if your students don’t trust you—for whatever reason—they’ll find a reason to argue any point regardless of how detailed your syllabus might be. Be like a bad student; find out the minimum syllabus requirements and do your best to barely meet them. Your good students will thank you.

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