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The End of the Paper Syllabus

August 22, 2005

On the first day of classes, the ritual has been the same for decades: Professors hand out copies of the syllabus and walk students through it. But in most courses at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh this fall, the only thing professors may hand out is a URL.

That's because the dean of the College of Letters and Science told professors that -- for financial and educational reasons -- they should put their syllabuses online, and stop distributing them on the first day of classes. If students want to print out copies, they can do so themselves, says Michael Zimmerman, the dean.

Zimmerman says that the Wisconsin system's budget "has been cut relentlessly" and that deans have no choice but to try to save every penny. Zimmerman has been dean for 14 years, and his college's budget (about $18.5 million) is down from where it was when he started. Not a single unit in his college is receiving more money now than when he started, despite inflation generally and huge increases in costs such as scientific equipment.

"We have to set priorities," he says.

The college never figured out the exact cost of printing syllabuses, he says. But copies cost the college about 2 cents a page, nearly all of the university's 11,000 students take at least some classes in the college, and syllabuses run from a page to 15 pages.

In making cuts, Zimmerman says, the college tries to protect its academic mission and the syllabus policy would never have been adopted if anyone thought it would hurt students. He adds that many professors elsewhere have already stopped handing out syllabuses. "A good number of people we've spoken to have never even seen a hard copy of a syllabus," he says.

From an educational perspective, the policy could help students if they go to professors' Web sites before classes start, and either read or print out a copy. "If they think about class before they show up the first day, it might enhance student learning," he says.

Many faculty members disagree. "This is really idiotic," says M. Kevin McGee, a professor of economics. "You want access to something like the syllabus in your notebook and with your papers. You need it in paper form," McGee says, adding that Oshkosh students do not carry around laptops with any regularity.

McGee is no Luddite. He has for a number of years posted copies of his syllabi online, and thinks that is useful, but he says students expect and need a paper copy, too. "Essentially what the dean is telling us is, instead of sending one sheet of paper to the copy center to be printed, we send 100 or so students to the computer lab to print them slowly, one at a time. It's a tremendous waste of student time."

Zimmerman acknowledges that some professors are upset, and says he believes the change will not be as difficult as they predict. He adds that if a department chair wants to pay for syllabus printing, he won't crack down. Says Zimmerman: "I'm not creating a syllabus police."

 

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