• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


As Syllabus Writing-Time Approaches...

Whatever the rule is, write it down.

August 12, 2020


Time for the annual “here’s why academic vp’s and deans get worked up about syllabi” post.


Students often file grade appeals, or take similar measures, when they feel slighted.  As someone who has sat in on grade appeal hearings for years, I need all faculty to understand this:


It’s much harder to defend an unwritten policy.


For example, how do you handle late assignments?  From the standpoint of my office, I don’t especially care what the answer is as long as three conditions are met: it’s within shouting distance of reasonable, it’s written down, and it’s enforced evenhandedly.  Fulfill those conditions, and I can easily defend it.  Ignore those, and you take your chances.


The same applies to class policies around attendance, participation, lateness, alternate assignments, plagiarism penalties, and even -- if you simply must -- extra credit.  (Pro-tip: don’t.)  I can easily support all sorts of variations on any of those policies, but whatever they are, they need to be written down.  


In the age of Zoom, something similar will probably apply to policies around student cameras.  My personal view is that we shouldn’t require students to show themselves on camera unless doing so is necessary for a particular activity, like giving a speech.  Students’ homes are private; forcing them to expose their homes to professorial scrutiny (and the scrutiny of their classmates) seems gratuitous.  But that’s a personal preference.  From the perspective of my office, my position is that faculty have a lot of leeway, but whatever policy they adopt, they should write it down and implement it evenly.


This may seem pedantic, but it’s in the name of setting a baseline of fairness.  When the rules are written down and made known to the students, then they know what the expectations are.  Unwritten rules tend to be much more legible to students with the cultural capital to just “know.”  In practice, that group tends to skew by race and income in predictable ways.  Students who come from other backgrounds may import the assumptions that worked in more familiar settings, like high school or minimum-wage jobs.  Spelling out the assumptions in writing, and taking a moment to explain them if students are confused, gives the ones who might be the first generation of their family to attend college something closer to a fair shot.


It’s also easier to be consistent when the rules are written down.  If late penalties, say, are decided with shrugs and whims in the moment, it would be easy to develop discriminatory patterns without even knowing it.  Written rules don’t rely on the vagaries of memory or mood.


To be clear, saying “please write down your late-work policy” is not the same as saying what the late-work policy should be.  It’s just saying that if you have one, it should be written.  Now that we’re largely moving to a virtual environment, where norms are still in flux, clarity is that much more important.


So my annual plea to faculty: if you plan to enforce it, write it down.



Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


We are retiring comments and introducing Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Back to Top