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Early in my career I was counseled to frame my syllabus as a “contract.”

It made some intuitive sense, particularly at the start of my teaching experience when I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Here’s what we’ll be doing. Here’s the expectations for each party. Here’s what happens if those expectations aren’t met. Clear, straightforward, zero ambiguity.

Adhere to the contract, and everything will be fine.

What’s the cliché? Best laid plans and all that…

The syllabus was supposed to be a source of some comfort. If the syllabus says failure to complete any assignment results in either a failing grade, or if excused, an incomplete, then that’s what we’re going to do.[1]

If a student did B-level work the majority of the semester, but they biffed that one assignment worth 20% of the grade because of illness, a breakup, family death, accident or injury, or something I was never even aware of, and their B is dragged down to a C+, that’s just what the syllabus demands.

On the practical level, I soon discovered that teaching a class of twenty or more undergraduate students is to exist in a constant state of ambiguity. Trying to adhere to the syllabus as a contract often required twisting myself into shapes I did not care for.

Things that seemed to matter when I was planning the semester often became less obviously necessary when in the thick of things, but having been conditioned to see the syllabus as a contract, and believing my role was to uphold and adhere to the standards I’d set (or that had been set by others for me), I tended to cling to it.

No matter how many times I re-engineered the “contract” based on previous experiences, events conspired to throw new wrinkles my way.

Within not too many semesters, I recognized that under the contract model, if the syllabus was a ship, even when we started to take on water, I was the captain, lashed to the mast, determined to ride it into the depths, no matter how many others drowned around me.

It just didn’t work for me.

I don’t remember the specifics of the first time I swerved from my own syllabus, mostly because it was so liberating I started doing it often, calling audibles on policies, assignments, all kinds of things, almost always in consultation with students themselves.

I was using discretion and judgment, a privilege I honestly didn’t know was mine to exercise based on how I’d been conditioned coupled with my contingent status.

Unleashed, I dropped the notion of a syllabus as a contract altogether and began to wonder why I’d been counseled to see it through that particular lens.

At the conceptual level the notion of a syllabus as a “contract” breaks down, as the joining of a contract is a mutual agreement between two freely operating parties. As the instructor primarily of required gen ed courses I could not fall back on the notion that students at least chose my course. The syllabus was imposed, entirely at my own discretion.

Even the user agreements we heedlessly agree to in order to access the latest app offer more freedom than my syllabus “contract,” and I can’t imagine we see those user agreements as any kind of ideal worth emulating.

But if a syllabus wasn’t going to be a contract, what was it?

It became some mix of plan, promise, and manifesto.

The syllabus as contract was primarily one of prohibitions, students shall not, should not, will not.

A syllabus as a plan is a lot like an itinerary before a trip. There’s some definite highlights we need to hit, but if something that seems cool and worth doing crops up unexpectedly, we need to seize that opportunity in the moment. If something really bad happens (the equivalent of a norovirus breakout on a cruise ship) we may need to abandon something previously scheduled entirely.

The promise is something akin to wedding vows. While a marriage is a literal contractual relationship, the vows themselves are not strictly part of the contract, instead, they are a statement of intent of the responsibility we hold for the other.

The contract syllabus is often filled with what students must promise – often without their explicit consent – things like attendance, meeting deadlines, and other policies, but I believe the promise section should contain at least as much about the instructor’s end of the bargain as the student’s. The promise part of the syllabus is me sharing what I will (or sometimes will not) do for students. Perhaps not love, honor, cherish, but qualities appropriate for the classroom: respect, consult, empower.

The promise part of the syllabus can even be a place where the promises are truly developed through collaboration with students, as Cathy Davidson of HASTAC demonstrates in her work. Prof. Davidson requires students to develop their own syllabi for the course which they share with each other and discuss, outlining the collective ethos that will govern the space. 

Davidson sees her pedagogy through the lens of “adventure,” a “journey” where students have a stake in determining a destination best suited to their needs. This seems preferable to me, rather than continuing to chart a course into a storm I can see coming from miles away.

The manifesto portion of the syllabus is my declaration of values that underpin both the plan and the promise, the why that undergirds the what.

For example, when I discuss the use of a grading contract, I will explain the evolution that has led me to its use, how my privileging of the experience of learning through writing is more important to me than the specific achievement on the final writing artifact.

It’s important to note that not all students are necessarily on board with the items in the manifesto at the start of the semester. (Or even at the end.) They may have a different philosophy towards school and education than I do, but unlike a syllabus as contract, the manifesto makes space for us to discuss those disagreements.

Don’t get me wrong, I am unlikely to amend my manifesto unless and until experience and evidence suggests it needs emendation (which does happen), but I believe there is a real benefit to students at least knowing what the course is rooted in, even if they question those roots.

The framework of syllabus as plan, promise, and manifesto, rather than contract often results in a length some would find horrifying -- 10, 12, 15 single spaced pages done as a Frequently Asked Questions document.[2]

And if it were a contract, I would tend to agree with those criticisms, but this syllabus is not a contract, it is a living document which reflects the experiences, emotions, philosophies, and goals I bring to a particular course.

Prior to students starting the class, I very much want to show them my work, how I got to this place, this plan, these promises, this manifesto.

Conscripts cannot willingly sign-on to a contract, and when my students are conscripts, I’ve found it beneficial to cede a good measure of my power to them so they soon forget this fact and see that what they experience within the course is largely within their control, and their goal should not be to adhere to my (to them) arbitrary policies, but to concentrate on being curious, finding their way to the most interesting and edifying trip possible..

Learning is always going to be voluntary, internally driven, and unique to the individual. By moving away from a syllabus as a “contract” I believe I started each semester closer to fulfilling my goal to help students learn as much as possible.


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[1]Matt Reed recentlty wrote about the fought nature of incompletes and the problems they create for both instructors and students.

[2]Here’s an example from a number of years ago. My approach has evolved even further since this time, and policies I share there I no longer hold, but it’s a good example of the format. 

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