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Against Syllabi

Against Syllabi
January 27, 2005

Another semester, more syllabi. Is it possible there was ever a semester where I really just strolled in on the first day, scribbled the texts on the blackboard, mentioned the number of tests, asked if there were any other questions, and then proceeded to take up most of the hour discoursing on the nature of the subject of the course. This is how I began semesters over 30 years ago.
    
No more. Now it is as conceivable to begin a course without a syllabus as it would be to begin by telling a racial joke. The syllabus demonstrates that departmental guidelines will be followed. The syllabus assures that the catalogue description will be conformed to. A course description? On the syllabus. Course outcomes? Listed. What about attendance policies? Allowance for students with "special needs"? Methods of assessment? All on the syllabus, along with bonuses such as, for example, a statement about fostering student growth if the course is part of a core curriculum or a statement about academic integrity. Some syllabi even include a description of material and tasks for every single day of the ensuing semester.

How can we explain why such excruciatingly detailed syllabi are now mandatory for each course? Simple: to defend against legal challenges by students -- most obviously concerning grades but finally encompassing any conceivable matter having to do with evaluation. Consequently, a professor faces opening day before students like a defense attorney preparing an opening statement to the jury.

But why have so many syllabi swelled to such length? The existence of syllabi as legal documents might explain why they have come into requisite being in the first place. It does not wholly explain why they have becomes encrusted with such details as the instructor's cell, the new assistant dean's office number, or links to all manner of Web
sites.

It seems to me that we have become unsure about what not to put on syllabi because we have become unsure what a course is. It is no longer self-contained. My behavior decades ago on opening day was so carefree as to seem irresponsible today. It is as if the course was mine and mine alone. Of course it was not. For starters, it was the department's. But I felt as if the course was mine, if only because there were no assistant deans to which any students had recourse if they flunked the mid-term, and there were no e-mails to remind me to turn in two copies of each of my syllabi to the department secretary.

Today the more syllabus-heavy a course, I would argue, the more context-dependent. The course is now viewed as part of a department, the department is part of a program, the program is part of a division, the division is part of an institution, and so on. So when a syllabus details criteria for grading, or methods of instruction today, it is not merely about the course anymore. The syllabus is burdened with a definition of a course so expanded that the very existence of an individual instructor threatens to become effaced.

The various imperatives that govern the disposition of any one course are far more decisive. Indeed, part of the consequence of these imperatives is to act, in turn, to characterize the teacher as an "instructor" rather than as a "professor." In fact, the instructor of any one course is likely to be an adjunct, since upwards of half of the college-level courses taught throughout the United States at the present time are taught by adjuncts. This fact alone provides much of the reason why syllabi have become so important.

Adjuncts are marginal to departments, by definition. No wonder they are expected to produce handsome syllabi, through which they publicly demonstrate -- to themselves, as well as to their departments, their institutions, their professions or even their states-- their fealty to the sovereign wholes that authorize them to appear before students in the first place.
 
No wonder also, though, that many make use of what space they have on the syllabus to embellish it further, with everything from idiosyncratic stylistic riffs on the course description or more minute calibrations of the grading scale to explorations of nuances concerning class attendance. Some measure of authority, not to say self-respect, is thereby gained. How much depends upon the individual instructor, through whom, like the director of a play, the directives of the syllabus still remain to be performed.

But the result may nonetheless emerge ill-timed or poorly acted. I recently heard the following story. A young adjunct was teaching his first course. If he was not sure of himself, he was sure of his syllabus, until one day a student missed a test. When she appeared at the next scheduled class, he confidently declared thus: "You missed the test. You can't retake it. See the syllabus." "I did," the student replied, "and it says that I can take the test if I have a written explanation. Here's the explanation."

She presented a piece of paper, with a flimsy excuse she had written by herself. "I meant a doctor's excuse," protested the young adjunct. "Well," countered the student, "that's not clear from the syllabus." 

The adjunct had to admit it was not. So he relented when the student threatened to "go straight to the dean," and agreed to give the test to the student that day. But she refused, insisting that she could only take the test the next day, at 7 a.m. Then the adjunct refused. The two compromised: 8 a.m. He should not have been surprised when the student failed to show up. I never learned the rest of the story.

Among many possible morals, let me emphasize one: a syllabus is not a script. As a legal document, it may backfire. As a pedagogic statement, it will be incomplete. The forces that surround syllabi -- ranging from deans down the hall  to mandates from the state capitol -- are now too powerful. Not only can they not be resisted, but in many cases, they cannot even be determined, until the semester begins. There is a distinct sense in which the most detailed syllabi, whether by design or not, act to defer the beginning of the semester to a timeless moment, when all is fresh and new, the curtain is ever about to rise, and everybody is on the same page.

Who has not dreamt of such a moment? Sad to have to admit that the dream is vain. Any syllabus is fated to yield to the messy circumstances of its course, with results that cannot be predicted. This is reason enough to be against syllabi; their presentation of a course as a fully reasoned, systematically organized thing is spurious. A course that is only its syllabus, day after day, is a course where spontaneity, improvisation, and risk have been banished. The loss is too great.

Syllabi always put me in mind of that celebrated notion of Jorge Luis Borges, about the map that has grown so ambitious and comprehensive that it is finally stretched to cover the earth completely. The map and its land are one. No matter, in contrast, that the syllabus and its course can never quite be one. We -- students and instructors both -- ought to oppose syllabi because of the presumption they express as well as the legalism they confirm. A map is not necessary for every destination. Some of the most memorable ones result from just getting lost.

Bio

Terry Caesar is an adjunct professor at San Antonio College. He is the author or co-editor of seven books, including three on academic life, the most recent being Traveling though the Boondocks. 

 

 

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