As a student-turned-professor-turned-administrator, I’ve seen syllabi from several angles. September looms in the water like an approaching dorsal fin, which means that it’s syllabus-writing season again. Having seen them from multiple angles, and having seen them go awry in any number of ways, a few well-meaning tips:
First, assume a third party reader. Syllabi are often written, properly, with the student-as-reader in mind. That’s a great place to start. But if a dispute arises between you and a student, that dispute may lead to various third parties — starting with the department chair or dean, or possibly a committee — wading in. Those third party readers aren’t necessarily just power-hungry philistines; they’re representatives of the due process to which students are entitled. In that spirit, the good ones will look to your syllabus for guidance as to the rules of the road for your class.
For instance, if I’m in a grade appeal hearing — which happens fairly regularly — and a student is alleging arbitrary treatment, one of my first questions will be what the rules are for the class as a whole. Is late work accepted? If so, is there a penalty? How much? Rules made up on the fly are much harder to uphold than rules written down in advance. Dr. Robin Mitchell (@ParisNoire) shared a great version of a late policy on Twitter last week:
“I have a ‘shit happens’ clause in my syllabi. You invoke the clause on one assignment and get a three-day extension. No explanation required. It cuts down on the need to lie or divulge personal business.”
As an administrator, I love that; it’s realistic, practical, and respectful of student autonomy while still maintaining clear expectations. Dropping one assignment or exam, as a matter of policy, achieves something similar. As long as the policy is clear, non-arbitrary, and evenhanded, I can easily uphold it, even if it’s not something I would have done myself. It can also spare the weary professor from being lied to, or from having to wonder if they’re being lied to.
Second, assume that some/much/most student struggle is about circumstances, not ability or attitude. A syllabus is a great place to include some very brief, basic information about campus services and resources that are available, whether that means the tutoring center, the food pantry, or psychological counseling. If the syllabus is just a list of “thou shalt nots,” with no indication of “here’s how to do better,” that’s pretty discouraging. For a student new to college, getting a slew of “thou shalt nots” in the first week without any encouraging messaging can reinforce the self-doubts they already have.
Third, if you aren’t using OER, at least be clear about when it’s possible to use previous editions of books. Sometimes current editions aren’t available used, but previous editions are. Depending on what you’re doing, that may or may not matter. Students won’t know unless you tell them. If you’re teaching a course in which a previous edition would work just fine, let them know. The money you save them may mean a lot.
Finally, a syllabus can give you a chance to signal to vulnerable students. For instance, you could include a line about indicating preferred pronouns or names during the break of the first class. IT systems are getting better about allowing the “preferred name” option for students, which is a great start if you have it. It’s ideal for trans students, who may reject their legal name, but it also works well for students who, say, go by their middle name. (In my observation, that’s common among students who have the same name as one of their parents.) I’ve also seen students with names that are challenging for most American English speakers adopt an easy English name to spare themselves the repeated torture of hearing their names butchered. But most IT systems, at this point, don’t indicate a preferred pronoun. Knowing when to use “they” rather than “he” or “she” probably requires asking, and the syllabus is a good place to do that. It shows respect to students to whom it’s relevant, and does no harm to any others. Get it right, and it sets a tone.
A little bit of forethought in syllabus construction can avoid a world of trouble later.
WIse and worldly readers, do you have any syllabus tips to add?