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.
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.Â
Last week, Ohio became the latest state where legislators introduced an "Academic Bill of Rights for Higher Education."
The bill seeks to impose on all private and public colleges and universities an administrative code allegedly designed to prohibit political and religious discrimination. It calls on the institutions to guarantee student access "to a broad range of serious scholarly opinion" and expose them to "a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies and perspectives." It insists that students "be graded solely on the basis of their reasoned answers" and prohibits discrimination on the basis of "political, ideological, or religious beliefs." Faculty members would be forbidden from using their classrooms "for the purpose of political, ideological, religious, or antireligious indoctrination"; and they would be barred from "persistently introducing controversial matter into the classroom ... that has no relation to their subject of study and that serves no legitimate pedagogical purpose." The bill extends its dubious protections to all student organizations, to the hiring and promotion process, and even to "professional societies formed to advance knowledge within an area of research."
I have to guess that the vast majority of college faculty and administrators find this legislation baffling. Surely most honor the ideals of impartiality in dealing with students as part of the air we breath; it goes without saying that these principles are the foundation of the university. So, at least here in Ohio, we're scratching our heads and wondering why the State Senate should be wasting its time considering legislation to fix something that isn't broken and correct a problem that doesn't exist.
But, of course, the oh-so-neutral language of the bill only hides its profoundly ideological purpose. The Ohio bill is just a knock off from David Horowitz's war against higher education. Here, at least, there is no doubting the motives behind the bill. One of its main sponsors, his quotes crying out for placement in a Sinclair Lewis novel, told the Columbus Dispatch that the bill was necessary because "80% or so of [college faculty] are Democrats, liberals, or socialists or card-carrying Communists." When asked for evidence that these radicals were corrupting "young minds that haven't had a chance to form their own opinions," as he described college students, the senator contended that, after months of investigation, he heard of a student who claimed to have been discriminated against because she supported Bush. One second-hand rumor is all he had after three months? His standards of evidence wouldn't get him through one of my introductory American Civ classes.
Given the intellectual dishonesty behind the bill, it is only reasonable to wonder what political forces are lurking behind it and whose agenda it is fulfilling. Horowitz long has found his calling in attacking the academic left, and he was prodded to obsession several years ago when some of his attempts to place ads opposing slavery reparations in various college newspapers were rebuffed. These incidents led to the establishment of the Students for Academic Freedom, a remake of the '60s-era Young Americans for Freedom that now claims 135 chapters. Spurred on through the heated atmosphere of the presidential election, Horowitz's now-organized obsession is finding sympathetic support among right-wing radicals in the various state wings of the Republican Party. Apparently, now that they can't attack John Kerry or gay marriage, the right-wing media machine and its followers in state governments have trained their sights on a next-most favored whipping boy, the university professor.
As parts of a larger ideological war, the Ohio bill is the political equivalent of a frat boy prank. It can do no good. It can do considerable harm, but only in the unlikely possibility that responsible people take it seriously. Any amateur can look at the bill as it stands and see what a sloppy piece of work it is. Nowhere does it define what constitutes "a plurality of serious scholarly methodologies," how "indoctrination" is to be measured, or how discrimination is to be detected.
When a Dispatch reporter asked the bill's sponsor what constituted "controversial matter" to be barred from the classroom, he didn't exactly narrow things down: "Religion and politics, those are the main things." There goes any discussion of Thomas Jefferson in my history classes, or Martin Luther King or -- well, pretty much any discussion of anything. The bill discriminates because it applies only to "humanities, the social sciences, and the arts," and leaves, thereby, those card-carrying Communists in business departments free to continue denouncing the evils of compound interest. And yet it is simultaneously so broad that the state's Bible colleges would have to shut down entirely. If this bill passed, we would either have to ignore it completely or stop teaching.
The sloppiness may well be intentional, since the goal isn't good law but political intimidation. The most plausible outcome is that the bill will die a quick but noisy death: After hearings in which radical right-wingers get headlines by blasting academics, college presidents pledge to promote fairness and the bill dies. Meanwhile, red-baiting students will get the not-surprising impression that they can level charges against any professor who makes the slightest polemical point, or, more important, who utters a disconcerting truth. Students who aren't satisfied with an administrative response are likely to sue. The university will waste precious money in either administrative or legal costs, and any atmosphere of robust and critical thought that now exists will dissipate as many instructors take the line of least resistance.
Not the least curiosity here is that the very same people who, 10 years ago, ridiculed the campus speech codes as "political correctness" now want to impose the most extreme sorts of speech codes through force of law and outrageous intimidation. The very people who howled about the debunking of the great Western traditions of free speech and critical reason are now engaged in a frontal action that can only squelch free speech and establish a radical subjectivity as the rule of the day.
After all, anything any student wishes to find discriminatory, under the law, could indeed be removed from the classroom; education would devolve into whatever pandered to the individual bias of every student. Truth, that noble thing conservatives always say they seek, will become the same degraded thing that it has become with the likes of Limbaugh, Fox News, and Horowitz: mere "spin." The radical right, it seems, has learned well from the postmodern left.
David Steigerwald is associate professor of history at Ohio State University and director of the history program at Ohio State's Marion campus. His latest book, Culture's Vanities ( Rowman & Littlefield ), is, incidentally, a critique of much that passes for academic leftwing thought today.