A recent occurrence that bubbled out of the world of higher education and onto the radar of national news media like The New York Times and CNN concerned a stunt by Kenyon Wilson, a professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, who hid instructions in his syllabus for locating a $50 bill hidden in a library locker. At the end of the semester, he shared an image of the $50, still in the locker.
Whatever the professor’s motivations were, many observers quickly concluded that his students should hang their heads in shame for their failure to read the syllabus. Others took a different view and suggested that the professor was setting his students up to fail just so he could gain clout on social media. As Kevin Gannon pointed out, the putative clue was terse and buried in one of the many paragraphs that universities require faculty members to include in every syllabus.
Before the incident, the state of conversation among academics about syllabi could be boiled down to a handful of memes, appropriately enough. Among academics on social media, it’s easy to find the meme of Morpheus announcing “What if I told you … It’s on the syllabus,” and the meme of a frustrated LeBron James telling a teammate, “It was on the syllabus.” At the same time, the persistence of the frustration indicated by the recurring popularity of such posts points to another meme: that of The Simpsons’ Principal Skinner asking himself if he is out of touch and concluding that, in fact, “it’s the children who are wrong.”
I continue to be uneasy with the idea of a professor showing his students up the way that Wilson did and think sharing his trick on public social media is tacky, for lack of a better word. More generally, though, I believe this moment demonstrates that the problem is not with our students but with our syllabi.
As it stands, the syllabus is a document that has to function in at least three different ways. For the professor writing the syllabus, it is an introduction to the course and a sort of intellectual itinerary for the ground the course will cover. That’s important to many students, but they also approach the syllabus as something like a contract that stipulates the work they need to do to earn the grade they desire. And while the university may be concerned with those intellectual and academic aspects, the syllabus also functions for it as a space to share statements about various university policies that deal with issues such as academic integrity and compliance with Title IX, the Americans With Disabilities Act and COVID-related policies. My employer, for example, requires faculty members to append a 10-page document concerning university policies to the end of each syllabus or to share it with students as a separate document.
Many colleges and universities mandate what seems like an ever-expanding litany of material that must be included on every syllabus. Unfortunately, that approach can make the policies seem less rather than more important. When the same text appears on every syllabus, and students see it four or five times in short order, they often start to ignore it. If you have ever skimmed a rental car contract or clicked “Agree” on terms of service for a piece of software without reading it closely, you are familiar with this dynamic.
Presenting institutional policies in this way can have the unfortunate effect of trivializing them. The principles enshrined in Title IX or the Americans With Disabilities Act are more than “fine print” for survivors of sexual assault or people with disabilities. We do our students a disservice if we think of them as “boilerplate.” The academic part of a syllabus is important, but the due date for Essay No. 1 or which edition of McTeague to use fade into irrelevance if a sexual assault survivor finds themselves newly traumatized because they disclosed their experience to a mandatory Title IX reporter without realizing what that might mean for them.
Beyond such challenges, the syllabus as a genre is a somewhat uneasy fit in the world of learning management systems, such as Canvas or Blackboard. They are the norm at most colleges and have taken on a new importance in the age of COVID remote or hybrid instruction. Different faculty make more or less extensive use of the features of their LMS, but it is possible to populate the LMS page for a class in such a way that it effectively supplants the syllabus as the thing students check to see what readings and assignments will be due soon. If a student is accustomed to an instructor who makes use of certain features of their campus LMS, it can be disconcerting to take a class with an instructor who is less engaged with using it to manage the class.
By way of illustration, Canvas, the LMS my employer uses, has a grade-book function, whereby students can see weighted grades for the work they have done to that point in the semester. They can then calculate what grades they might need for future assignments to reach a desired final grade for a course. If a faculty member simply returns graded work to students and logs it in a physical grade book or a spreadsheet on their desktop, students can still figure their current grade, but it is less convenient than checking Canvas. One of the questions on our course evaluations concerns if a professor “kept students informed of their progress in the class”—which, in the age of LMS, means using the grade book. More broadly, different professors use the various features of Canvas more, less or not at all. Like many pieces of software, there are all sorts of features faculty rarely use, as well as some features that are not present, like a “required texts” menu item.
For faculty who came of age as students and teachers in classes organized around a printed syllabus, student inclination toward getting class information from an LMS rather than a syllabus can be frustrating if one is accustomed to thinking of the syllabus as something between an itinerary and a covenant—an academic ketubah uniting the students and the instructor. Writing a syllabus can be a dreaded and daunting task, but the verb one uses for doing this work is “writing,” as in, “I finished writing the syllabus more than an hour before class began.” The corresponding verb for an LMS would be more like “populate,” as, “I need to populate all the assignments from the syllabus onto the assignments page in Canvas.”
The popularity of “syllabus” outside of academic contexts as a name for a list of readings on a topic, as in Charleston Syllabus or #StandingRockSyllabus, suggest the ongoing value of a syllabus as a way of articulating the intellectual goals of a college class. At the same time, as the LMS becomes an inescapable part of college education, the traditional syllabus may not be a very good way to manage complex interactions among teachers and their students.
As students and faculty embark on the fifth consecutive semester of pandemic teaching and learning, it is safe to say that everyone is running low on empathy and energy. At this point, most students have lost at least half of their time in college to some set or another of COVID constraints on their academic and personal lives. Faculty are struggling with evolving modalities and changing rules. COVID has served each of us, faculty members and students alike, a distinct cocktail of sorrow and loss. At this moment, I am loath to suggest that either do more than we already are doing to accommodate the other, because we are all of us at the end of our tether.
That said, while I am not doing anything more this semester, I am trying something different. I have broken up the syllabus into two documents. One contains readings, a schedule and assignments; the other includes everything else. These are written documents, rather than elements integrated into an LMS, but I hope separating them will help some. I am also building time into classes through the semester to check in on relevant aspects of both documents. It’s an approach inspired by the people who write documentation for things like printers and routers: there is a manual, and then there is a quick-start guide. I am hoping by concentrating the most relevant day-to-day information in a document that is not 10 pages long, that document will be more useful for students than a standard syllabus.
At the same time, this choice means taking more time in class to emphasize the personal and institutional values reflected in the other document. This experiment is likely to be less compelling than hiding 50 bucks in a locker, but I am hoping it results in less angst for me and my students alike at a time that is frustrating for us all.