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Syllabus Bloat?
January 21, 2013 - 9:53pm

An alert reader sent me this piece by a professor complaining about syllabus bloat.  I had to smile in recognition.

In college, I don’t remember spending much time worrying about syllabi. They’d typically be about a page, and would include the professor’s name, office number, office hours, the course title and number, sometimes a brief description of the topic of the course, a list of major (graded) assignments, some due dates, a list of required books, and maybe a late paper policy.  Many of them looked like they had been copied from copies from years before, and they may have.

In grad school, syllabi were even more bare-bones.  I remember one that was a half-page long, and students who had taken that professor before marveled that one existed at all.

Now, of course, syllabi are usually multiple pages, with much more mandated content.  Some of the new stuff is pretty unobjectionable -- email addresses are now standard, which seems reasonable to me -- but the new content often goes far beyond new versions of contact information.  If you were happy with the old version, the new version may seem cumbersome and unwieldy.  

Unfortunately for those of us who prefer brevity, there are actually good reasons for some of the expansion.  In other words, I don’t see the trend reversing unless and until we devise other ways to address the valid concerns that expanded syllabi address now.

As students have become more willing to challenge the grading judgments of professors -- and courts have become more willing to hear them -- it has become harder to fall back on the old “appeal to authority” as the answer to any challenge.  “Because I said so” doesn’t hold up in court. If a student comes forward with an allegation of some sort of irregularity in grading -- Susie got an extension but Johnny didn’t, say -- the first line of inquiry is the syllabus.  What rules did the professor set out at the beginning of the term?

From an administrative perspective, it’s usually pretty easy to defend anything that’s clearly stated, and not completely insane, on the syllabus.  If your syllabus says that you give four exams and count three, then that’s that.  If it says that late papers are penalized one letter grade per week, or that absences beyond the first three will result in set deductions, or that you drop the two lowest quizzes, then so be it.  When the ground rules are clearly stated and evenly applied, they’re easily defended from challenges.  

Things get trickier when the written terms are ambiguous or absent.  I can easily defend a determination that a student had more than three, or five, or eight absences.  I have a harder time defending a determination that her absences were “excessive,” if no other clarification is given.  Are two missed classes excessive?  Four?  What if your colleague in the same department allows five?  If a syllabus says that a professor “will” deduct points for lateness, that’s fine; if it says she “may” deduct points, I get nervous.  

The real nightmares are from rules improvised on the fly.  When a professor changes the rules of the course halfway through the semester, it’s much harder to defend, even if the changes are reasonable in themselves.  Sometimes that’s unavoidable, as when the original professor gets sick and someone else has to take over, but that tends to be the exception.  In practice, students tend not to contest deletions of assignments or extensions of deadlines, but they do contest additions.  

Of course, there’s a distinction between a syllabus for a given section and a generic syllabus for an entire course.  Ideally, the latter is devised by the entire department, and it gives room for customization.  The rule of thumb should be that the generic syllabus gives goals, and the specific syllabus gives means.  If the math department decides that fractions should be covered in the first developmental course, then the folks who teach the second one will assume that students have already had fractions.  If too many instructors at the first level decide to skip fractions, they’re setting up those students for failure.  Some level of agreement about content areas is necessary to make the sequence work.  (In my case, categories of what must be included in a syllabus are spelled out in the faculty union contract, but I know that’s not true everywhere.)

Where the boundary between generic and specific syllabi is can be a bit murky in practice, but the principle seems clear.  

Outcomes assessment adds another layer.  Again, here, the principle seems clear: students should know upfront what the goals of the course are.  How much specificity is needed to get the job done is a judgment call, but it’s hard to argue with the concept.  

I know it’s a pain to write them, but relatively detailed syllabi can save a world of time later.  If the policies about lateness, plagiarism, disruptive conduct, and the like are already spelled out, then backing them up is easy.  If the professor makes up policies on the fly, backing them up is a lot harder.  It may be inconvenient that we live in a world in which the old appeal to authority doesn’t work, but that ship has sailed.  Better to protect yourself upfront.

 

 

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