• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Respect the Syllabus

Students and their expectations.


August 31, 2016

A student of my hybrid online class sent an email to me, complaining that the online notes for my class were designed poorly (she did not like the background colors) and that she was paying too much money for my sloppiness. Another student requested in an email that he would like me to “simplify” the paper assignments. Yet another student wrote an email to me that, being that I am a mother myself, she finds me shockingly intolerant of personal problems. One student sent me 12 messages in a single day.

In part, I blame the consumer model of education (whenever I’m given a chance to blame consumerism, I will always take it), where students treat their education as another service and feel they have the same right to complain as they would at a fast food restaurant counter that forgot to include their fries with their order. The student-as- consumer model already has its critics. As more consumer experiences move to an online environment, habits developed from interacting with companies like Google, Amazon, and Netflix bleed over to online courses. I have never had a student complain about the comfort level of a classroom chair, but the design of a course web page must be as sleek as those of multi-billion- dollar companies or else it is perceived as an inferior product.

I also blame the ease of sending off email messages, where one can just keep firing off emails to people as if there were engaged in an ongoing conversation, without ever having to face the negative body language that would provide valuable feedback during an in-person encounter. I couldn’t imagine someone walking into my office 12 times in one day to ask me similar questions.

It makes me wonder about how these students will act when they become employees or have their own businesses and work for clients. I just picture these future workers at their job, telling their boss that they want the project they were just assigned to be simplified, and the boss just looking at them puzzled. Or I imagine workers expecting everyone at the office to care about their personal problems all the time. This article about Millennials in the workforce suggests that they prefer a coach over a boss and “don’t want to waste time on little things.”

I wonder what our obligation as faculty is to teach students that, yes, sometimes you have a supervisor that demands things of you, or that little things (even things that may seem like busy work) are necessary before moving on to grander solutions? Do we also have an obligation to teach civility, respect, and compassion? Are they not a basic part of education?

I’m not even sure how we do that well in today’s environment. Technology has made it more difficult. A student over-visiting my office could be dealt with by a stern look or an exasperated sigh or just looking busy, but there is no equivalent of that in an email. Even if you try to set limits in an email, the permanence of the electronic word is scary to many because, at the end of the day, we are fooling ourselves if we think that universities have completely resisted the consumer model. Treating your “customer” rudely will come back to haunt you in your customer evaluation survey, otherwise known as teaching evaluations.

Is there a way to engineer mutual respect onto your syllabus? It doesn’t seem to fall under participation or any content assignments. It’s difficult to create a rubric for it.

Yet, it may be more necessary today than ever before. How do you create a respectful environment, particularly within the student-teacher dynamic? When has that environment gone awry?



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