Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Le French Professeur with an Early Thirsty on Syllabi.

What my syllabus would say if I had a spine.

Common Sense Statement:
This syllabus is not a contract but has certain contract-like qualities. It describes what you are expected to do to succeed in this course, and implies your commitment to do it.

I describes the rules and means I will use to evaluate you, and imply that I will aim to follow them. I can and will make changes to any point in the syllabus if I see it beneficial to you and your education: eg: if the campus were invaded by rabid coyotes during the finals week, I would probably find a way to calculate your grades without you taking your final exam.

I assume that you understand the standards of academic and civic behavior and commit to respect them, yet I do not describe everything you are not supposed to do in this class and which, if you were to do it, would have some effect in your final grade: eg: it does not explicitly forbid you to jump on your chair, remove your clothes and sing 'The Marseillese," nor what would happen if you repeatedly did so. (You cannot, and you would fail the class).

Q: More ideas?


  1. It would be wonderful to be able to have a syllabus like yours. Even better would be a one-pager, like the syllabi I had when I was an undergraduate, which were essentially lists of the readings that our proffies expected us to do, and when to have them done. The trouble is that, these days, that's a dream within a dream.

    No less than the Provost of our university told us, during new faculty orientation, that our syllabi had to read like legal contracts, and that if we didn't mention explicitly that students have to have cell phones turned off during class, we would not be able to enforce it, since the student could object that "it wasn't in the syllabus." I know this is absurd, since one cannot possibly include all contingencies, but university administration aren't noted for their proficiency at logic.

    This isn't a civilized country like France, you know. This is California, home of most of the lawyers in the U.S.A. It makes even less sense than England.

    As far as rabid coyotes go, again, this is California: we get them all the time, so it isn't sufficient cause to cancel finals, much like a snowstorm in New Hampshire isn't. Silver bullets work great here. As far as "La Marseillese" goes, tell your students what the lyrics mean.

  2. To follow what Froderick had to say: my syllabi are ungodly long, but that's because of the now-necessary contract nature of the beast. I've known folks who had nice, simple documents that were overturned on grade appeals. Mine is, essentially, a reading for the first class period (but I don't giver a quiz on it like some folks at CM have mentioned in the past) and it covers due dates, projects, essays, homework, plagiarism, conduct, and so on.

    I also tell them (on the first night): "please don't make me ask, 'Have you read the syllabus?'"

  3. If it weren't such a drain on class time you could hand the syllabus out, go over it, and announce that there will be a test on the syllabus in the second class meeting. An "open-syllabus" test.

    The sad thing is that you'd probably still have some flakes fail it.

    1. I had a colleague who did that, some years ago. I used to consider it pretty pathetic to test and grade students on something as banal as a syllabus. I'm considering it myself, though, now that the online LMS allows for quizzes that won't take class time.....

  4. Same as above. Mine are up to about eight pages of 10 point, Times New Roman font.

    I especially like it when the occasional honest student will admit that he didn't read it because it was too long.

    No syllabus quiz for me either. I did that once, years ago, and I couldn't tell any difference, so I dropped it.

    For the most part, going over it kills the first class period of a 50-minute course.

    1. This semester I am trying to NOT go over the syllabus in class-my theory is that once I "go over it" they think they have read it. And as we all know, either way it doesn't matter,they won't read it. So I don't waste class time on it. I go over the "do not text" rule since that might occur and their first assignment. Then into the good stuff. I love the looks of some students- "Notes on the first day???"

    2. I'm plunging straight in, too, with "syllabus highlights" on the first day and a "read syllabus carefully and email me with any questions" assignment before the next class. I've got hybrid classes that only meet once a week, and I can't afford the time (and see that there's a note to myself on a copy of last spring's syllabus that the stuff I'd listed for the second face-to-face meeting was about twice as much as we could actually do). So some of that is landing on day 1, and reading the syllabus is, for the most part, up to the students.

      I've considered a syllabus quiz; I see the wisdom; it would probably even save me some arguments later (see note below on weighted averages). But I'm teaching tea-partying juniors (and some seniors who never got around to taking my class when they were supposed to), and quizzing them on the syllabus just doesn't accord with the level of maturity I expect (as in desire/will hold them to, not as in actually believe that they are all likely to exhibit). In this class at least, I'd rather set the bar on the high side, and hope that they rise to the level I set. Actually, give or take the grade arguments, they usually come pretty close.

  5. I think we almost open ourselves to more problems the more detailed our syllabi become. It appears as if they cover the totality of the classroom experience.

    It could never do that, ever. You could use 8 point Times New Roman (and do people really use that font? I mean, seriously, not ironically?) and fill a thousand pages, and you still couldn't foresee every contingency. Why are we trying?

    I love the old 1 pagers that I had as a student. I take any departmental or university policies and publish them separately. My syllabus is mine. I do have a line in it that says, "I'll be reasonable in my handling of the class."

    If that's not enough, fuck it.

    1. I didn't mind a short syllabus as a student; I figured I'd just deal with it and see what happens.

      I use a 12-point font but the syllabus varies from 12-14 pages depending on the class. I tell 'em it's their FAQ.

    2. it would be nice if "being reasonable" were an option. Sadly, it seems those days are long gone. I tried to "be reasonable" with a student and it resulted in a grade appeal and him accusing me of discrimination (totally unfounded of course). Not one dean or adminstrator stood up to this snowflake. The only people that put him in his place were on the grade appeal committee (made up of faculty and students). It is nice when good students know a snowflake when they see one. My syllabus is 13 pages long but that includes two pages of crap from the adminstration and the guidelines for all the papers/projects in the course.

  6. A few years ago, a student in my composition class missed most of the class sessions--and assignments. What people forget about such courses is that they are focused on building skills rather than imparting information. So, the sequence of assignments is important. I emphasize this every time I teach such a course. Naturally, the ones who most need to understand it are the ones who don't hear it.

    The student in question was one of those people. She re-appeared a week before finals and declared that she was going to "make up" the work. I refused, alluding to the policies outlined in my syllabus. In spite of that, she submitted all twelve writing assigments at the end of that week.

    As you might expect, the quality of her work left much to be desired: I think the best one got a C-. When I returned them, she demanded permission to revise them. Once again, I refused, citing the policies I spelled out in my syllabus.

    You can guess what happened next: She re-submitted the assignments. However, she ignored all of my comments and corrections and merely made her assignments longer. Some of her revisions actually got worse grades than the originals.

    When I returned her re-writes, she was indignant. "But I added more to them," she protested. I reminded her that, first of all, she ignored the policies about timeliness and my refusal to accept her late assignments. And, more to the point, I told her that for an revision to receive a higher grade than the original, it has to be better than the original.

    "But it doesn't say that anywhere in the syllabus."

    The Department Chair denied her appeal, but a dean upheld it. In a weird way, though, things turned out for the best: She ended up with a "D" in the class. That meant she couldn't re-take it for a better grade. The college allowed students to do that in two courses if they received an "F" or "WU" (unofficial withdrawal), and the "F" or "WU" would be removed from the transcript if the student earned a "C" or higher. (Students who were in "danger" of getting a "D" would ask me to give them an "F" for that very reason.) But, if a student received a "D", she was stuck with it. Worse, while it counted toward the overall number of credits for graduation, it didn't count toward the number of credits students needed in order to continue their financial aid.

    I don't know whether she learned her lesson. But I learned mine. The result is that my syllabi grow longer every semester. When I was an undergraduate, I never could imagine syllabi like the ones I'm forced to write these days.

    1. Dear lord Dona, if you refused to accept her late assignments, why did you grade them when she turned them in anyway? And then graded her revisions, after again saying you wouldn't accept them?! The whole ordeal may have been avoided had you stuck to your guns in the first place rather that giving in to all the student's demands.

    2. I bet I know why...

      Because Dona is a dedicated teacher who felt compelled to help the student learn, even though credit wasn't going to apply.

      It's a case study in the lesson we all need to learn as educators (and is sort of the rallying cry of this blog):

      Do not care more about your students' work and grades than they do.

      As a related story, I once had to award half-credit to a paper without even properly grading it because a Grade Appeal Committee decided that my refusal to accept it late was unusually harsh and mean. And NO LATE PAPERS was all over the syllabus and the assignment IN BOLD. And it was due on the last day of classes, which Snowflake skipped because she had something better to do.

  7. Mine has sprouted appendices in the last year or so, because there are now page-long statements that I'm required to include that simply won't blend with my voice, and are too long to be quoted in any practical way (and I do want my syllabi, metastasizing monsters though they may be, to be more or less in my voice, and I don't want to be accused of plagiarism -- or, rather, I want to model appropriate acknowledgment of sources and blending of multiple voices).

    And this year's crop will include an explanation of how a weighted average is calculated, i.e. if A=95 and the grade in question contributes 10% to the final grade, the amount added to the final grade calculation for an A in that assignment is 9.5, not 10. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time explaining this in emails in the last year, so onto the syllabus it goes, probably as a footnote at the end of the grading section. So now the syllabus will also have footnotes. So be it; at least I can then -- legitimately -- cut and paste into emails as necessary.

    I, too remember the one-pagers with fondness. They seemed to work. But "read a Victorian triple-decker a week, and we might give you two weeks for Moby Dick" wouldn't go over very well these days, either.

    1. P.S. Last spring's syllabus was 8 pages of Times 10, counting one 1/2-page and one 3/4-page appendix, but not counting the course calendar (another 8 pages, which may soon get longer, since there is pressure to specify what course goals we are meeting every.single.day, and that seems like the best place to do it). Major assignments add another 6-10 pp.

    2. And this, I think, is an example of a case where the advent of word processing (and electronic distribution of documents) has *not* been a blessing. One of the reasons syllabi are getting longer is because they can, without paying secretaries to type them, or pushing faculty who must create their own to the breaking point (though other conditions of employment may be doing that anyway).

      There's something to be said for a set of broad policies published in a university catalog (for familiarity with which each student is responsible), and local discretion for interpreting/applying same.

  8. Another problem with the scenario of accepting/grading the student's work, even though submitted late, is that students then come to expect this. They will expect it frp, you, should they take another of your classes. They also carry it into their other classes. I have to correct these expectations in my junior-level courses, as students come to expect that the rules do not apply to them.

    If it's in your syllabus, mean it. Follow your own policy. Students will resist at first, but after a year or two, they come to expect that you will not waiver, and stop asking.

    That said, I can understand a student wanting work graded, even if they won't be getting credit for it. This assumes they want to learn from it. I have had this come up in my classes, and the powers that be demand that I grade the work. But they can't make me COUNT the grade. If someone wants to and has the authority to do so, they can override my grade - but I think the process of doing this is so onerous that no one wants to take it on.

  9. While it's not actually in my syllabus, I make a statement during the first class session that is very similar to Le French Professeur's, less the comments about rabid coyotes and "The Marseillese."

    What I do include is the following statement which, in conjunction with my reputation of being a hardass, seem to forestall any major behavioral issues.

    "My classroom is not a democracy. It is a benevolent dictatorship.
    However, the benevolence goes away rather easily if you start acting like jackasses."

    I've been making a statement like this since grad school days and I haven't once been called on it. Just lucky, I guess.

    1. I would love to say something like that! But I don't think my students know what "democracy" "dictatorship" or "benevolence" actually mean. All they would hear would be "you are jackasses."

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  11. One thing I've liked as I enter grad school - we get one page syllabi. There's the obligatory "here's the scheduled outline of class meetings with the readings, so everyone knows what's what right off the bat, with due dates for assignments noted so you can get to work early if you choose," and those can get to a few pages, but the actual syllabus part is only one page.

    This is something I've never experienced before, having recently been an undergraduate. I rather like it better this way.

  12. We have a sixty page single spaced (11 point Arial as recommended by Disabilities Advisory Service) Departmental Manual for students. This is on the departmental web page and linked to every blackpoodle module site. Every student taking single or joint degrees in the department gets their own nicely bound copy at the start of every single year, and a non-major taking classes in the department can request a copy.

    This has two advantages: 1) the rules about things like late work, penalties, what counts as Good Cause for an extension etc. are set at departmental level (and by the office manager who handles all submitted work. She's fiercer than most faculty!) and the same for all courses. This also includes a code of professional behaviour covering punctuality, electronics etc. etc. and 2) individual syllabi are shorter because all they need to spell out is the specifics for the module - e.g. the due dates for assignments, which classes are compulsory attendance and the occasional local variant on the rules (e.g. the rules say No Food Or Drink in classrooms - but some of us have three hour classes with a lot of discussion in seminar type rooms, so we allow 'non-sticky beverages to be consumed during class as long as any litter is removed' and 'schedule a ten minute comfort break at the mid-point, during which snacks may be consumed').

    Of course most students don't read it, but it's still good to have, and has the bonus of not making the lecturer the sole bad guy - nixing the 'but everyone else lets us dance on the desks naked when we get a B' or 'you're being unreasonable' responses, because "the Department has required this and I can't change it alone. You could appeal to the Teaching Coordinator DrX, but he did approve the manual before it was printed. If you want to change it, why not talk to the year reps and send a proposal for new rules for next year to the staff-student committee?"

    1. @Grumpy: you're in the English system, right? My impression is that they do certain sorts of standardization well -- e.g. the whole business of using comprehensive exams to judge the effectiveness of a student's course of study, rather than relying so much on grades given by instructors, who end up juggling the nurturing/developmental and evaluative roles, sometimes uncomfortably so. I sometimes think I'd be better off if I could point toward an outside review of some sort that students have to be ready for. Potential employers play that role to some degree, but it's not as direct or concrete. Of course, you've had the system for a long time, and if the U.S. tried to implement something similar, we'd end up with the monster son-of-NCLB, which we may end up with anyway. Good comprehensive testing is just too expensive, you see.

      P.S. our office managers are also fiercer, and generally better-organized and more in-the-know, than most faculty.


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