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The Syllabus as TOS
August 25, 2011 - 9:31pm

I just checked the definition of syllabus in the Oxford English Dictionary. It states what I used to assume it meant: “a statement of the subjects covered by a course of instruction or by an examination, in a school, college, etc.; a programme of study.” The oldest quotation using the word is from 1656, when it meant something more along the lines of a table of contents or concordance. The best quote, though, is from 1939 and is taken from W. H. Auden’s “Commentary” in Journey to War:

“... the young emerging from the closed parental circle, to whose uncertainty the certain years present their syllabus of limitless anxiety and labour.”

But I think we may be a little too fond of limiting and certainty. These days syllabi are looking more and more like those Terms of Service that pop up when we use software. You know, the long documents in fine print with a scrollbar that we click through so we can move on. I thought nobody read them, but it turns out the excellent people at the Electronic Frontier Foundation actually track changes to them for us. (The EFF points out that these documents have a sinister side. They are contracts that we can’t negotiate, and they contain provisions we might not agree to, if we understood what they actually meant.) But the most striking thing about TOS is that they are full of rules – and very few people read them. So maybe they’re not the best model for the syllabus.

And yet … each year our provost’s office sends out language that should be in every syllabus. It’s important information, but in addition to half a page of boilerplate paragraphs about the academic honesty policy and how those who have a documented disability can request accommodations, instructors feel they must include more and more language about what behaviors are expected or unwelcome in the classroom. It’s as if every potential problem has to be spelled out because it’s some kind of contract with the student that has to cover everything. I mean, what if students started trimming their toenails in public? That would be gross. Better make sure it's covered.

When you add all those rules to the traditional stuff - course description, the list of assigned texts, the class-by-class schedule, and information about major assignments - these documents get incredibly long and complex. I once saw on that was - I am not making this up – fifty pages long. (The teacher loaded it into the course management system; it would have exhausted the department’s copying budget before the first day of the term if she had handed it out. Students weren’t too happy, though, to be told they should print out a copy and bring it to class.) We traditionally go over syllabi on the first day of class, and then we’re annoyed when students miss an assignment or fail to adhere to a rule because “it was in the syllabus.”

Yeah, and you read those TOS closely, do you?

The trouble is the syllabus-as-contract is not only tiresome to read, it’s not inspiring. You must, you can’t, you ought – that’s not an itinerary for a trip to someplace new and exciting. And are those behaviors really the point of the course? In this course, you will learn to turn off your cell phone when instructed to do so. You will learn to show up on time. Not that these habits aren’t useful, but … really? Is that what the course is about?

I was struck by what the curious folks behind the Project Information Literacy project noticed when they gathered and examined research assignment prompts. These documents were well intentioned, but they were all about what the final product should look like: page length, number of sources, width of margins. They were almost entirely silent about how students should proceed, what tools would be particularly useful or even why it was worth doing. Though teachers covered those things in class, the prompts unintentionally enforced the notion that students all too often have: that their task is to produce a certain number of pages citing a required number of sources by a particular date.

Classes haven’t started yet at the Little College on the Prairie. In the upper Midwest we adhere to an ancient agricultural calendar and first must partake of ritual food on a stick at the annual fair honoring the harvest of soybeans, the other white meat, and dairy products. But I know from experience that there will be a flurry of syllabus-construction a day or two before students report to the classroom, and I will get lots of panicked requests for library workshop dates. It will be a little too late to suggest that assignment prompts might describe the process rather than the product, or that a syllabus might show how research will be part of the course experience rather than a due date. Maybe next year.

 

 

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