A Kinder, Gentler Syllabus?

The syllabus, like scaffolding that supports an emerging building, requires sound structure and ballast. It also needs a quality of resilience, writes Maria Shine Stewart.

April 26, 2016

Alas, I found no hits while googling the headline to this article -- not until now. Most of you know that the syllabus is a firm-yet-malleable, stable-yet-energizing learning contract that deans and students alike demand. Just as in crafting any other contract, half of the art is in the execution. The words you choose must be precise enough for this tome to be a living document -- not simply a list of thou shalts and thou shalt nots. Equally important, those words must be absorbed by the reader.

An ideal syllabus, therefore, has an authenticity and sets the stage for a semester of learning. It is at risk for lack of spirit if overloaded with verbiage, caveats or a tone that doesn’t truly match the teacher’s own voice. Just as “kind” and “gentle” are words entirely up to your discernment, perhaps we can agree that the extremes of a sylla-bliss full of smileys and a sylla-bull aimed to attack should be avoided.

The art and science of syllabus writing has left an indelible print on my own psyche since my first time around as a teaching assistant in graduate school in 1982, when I consulted with my chair on appropriate blocks of points for writing, revising, participating, showing up, reading, taking quizzes and any other desirable behaviors.

“It sounds as if you are contemplating higher mathematics,” Dr. LaGuardia said. Indeed I was -- hoping that getting the numbers right would be a firm anchor. Though I am mainly an intrinsically motivated student, I know that not everyone is, at least once school socializes us to “expect points.” Like all new teachers, I wanted to succeed.

By the end of that first exhilarating, harrowing semester, I learned that policy language alone doesn’t prevent plagiarism, ensure learning, stimulate the already motivated or light a fire under the lethargic. The teacher needs in-real-time skills to activate student potential, but students must move forward on their own.

The syllabus, like scaffolding that supports an emerging building, requires sound structure and ballast. And it needs a quality of resilience. As a green teacher, I learned that some students (even reluctant readers) are likely to seek loopholes. A student with a chip on his shoulder wrote me on a quiz, “I had to go to a funeral last class, so I probably failed the quiz today. But you wouldn’t care as you don’t distinguish between excused and unexcused absences.” Whoa. Some students are adversarial; other have habits engrained long before they arrive on the campus.

Here are some ideas to consider when it comes to developing your syllabus.

Manageable length. The syllabus is not a daily lesson plan. New teachers may struggle with this and new students, too. Those of us in this business for a while may be puzzled that both camps are puzzled, but it’s a reality. As a well-established pack rat, I have a few syllabi from my student days -- stretching back to the 1970s. Those works were eloquent haiku in contrast to the Leaves of Grass-like documents today (or maybe they are more like business insurance policies). There might be a happy medium.

“Mine is now 11 pages,” I heard a faculty member say not long ago. “But I won’t print it out.”

“I tried mine in eight-point type to save paper,” said another. “But if I can’t read it, the students can’t, either.”

Focus and format. If you’re bored while writing your syllabus, consider the plight of the reader. Avoid too many sylla-bans, sylla-bits and sylla-buts. Don’t let yourself get crushed under excessively rigid expectations or a class paced so tightly neither you nor your students can breathe. My favorite syllabi are when I really work on the format, as I have an aesthetic streak. Though my courses (writing) are generally required, I can at least make them appear tempting.

The rules. If offices such as campus security, disability services, the registrar and so on require boilerplate sections, do explain to students that the voice may be different but the shared values are there.

Who are you, really? The syllabus will ideally reveal something about the temperament of the writer. Avoid a cookie-cutter approach whether you are a chair distributing a departmental syllabus or a newbie with a mentor. Uniformity in objectives and even content need not preclude innovation and creativity. Know your teaching values and virtues. Be your best self.

Accountability without gobbledygook. Assessment. Goals. Outcomes. Objectives. Education never happened in a vacuum, even when “ivory tower” was an image heard with frequency. More and even more, colleges of all types must demonstrate to internal and external constituencies what students learned, how and through which assignments, in what manner projects were assessed, and how the learning is consonant with the department, major field and institutional mission. Most assessment talk isn’t lyrical, but it can and should be clear to students, accreditors, all readers.

Vital minutiae? I have had colleagues who resort to putting policies such as “no full-course meals in class, no pets, no applying makeup” … I understand that it’s usually that certain statistical outlier who pushes the limits and leads to such a line of type on the syllabus -- in perpetuity. But is it necessary?

Edit and proofread with care. Typing policies in the wee hours of the morning, you may encounter an accumulation of words from the depths like the whoosh of drifting snow on a campus parking lot. Don’t forget the trusty snowplow of editing: move that, dump that, cut that out. Indeed: less is more.

My own biggest blunder was missing a week -- entirely. That is the type of thing that occurs when typing with a 103-degree fever.

In any case, do work on your syllabi when well rested. And expect a mistake; students will take their cue by how you handle these. Those, too, can be a teachable moment.

Need a totally revamped syllabus? Probably not. And maybe you need to be tougher and firmer, not kinder or gentler. Only you know. But for a change, perhaps try your draft out on a colleague, perhaps in another department … or on a former student. Heed their input.

Then, take the biggest test of all. Print the syllabus out and return to your own student days in your mind. Is this a course you would have wanted to take yourself?


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing and works as a mental health counselor. This is part of a column, A Kinder Campus, that explores human relations in the academy. It offers anecdotal and research support for the idea that when we work kinder, we work better. Workplace morale, civility and collegiality count. Goodwill is free, so stock up and spread it around. Topic suggestions are welcome. Contact [email protected].


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