Not Reading the Syllabus

2014-08-31Syllabi that reflect the mundane, bureaucratic requirements of the University are at risk of setting an equally banal classroom atmosphere.

— Adam Heidebrink-Bruno

A day or two before classes begin, I send my students an e-mail in which I advise, “Some people are under the mistaken impression that the first day of class is simply a time for the professor to read the syllabus to students before everyone goes home. This is not the case for [insert class name].”

Reading the syllabus to students is a mind numbing experience that wastes a valuable opportunity to build on the first day’s excitement by facilitating conversations between students.

Even reading to students the type of syllabus which Dr. Heidebrink-Bruno proposes in “Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture,” squanders the opportunity to establish rapport between students which result from the type of conversations which Dr. Jesse Strommel described in a recent discussion among faculty that took place on Facebook. Stommel doesn’t focus on the syllabus because he doesn’t “want to burden the first day with predeterminations.” He goes on to explain, “I talk about the class a little, but mostly we talk about ourselves and why we’re there (and about the subjects of the class). That is what will determine the shape of the course; not the ramblings I’ve done in a syllabus before even meeting the members of the group.

At my college, we are required to give students a copy of the syllabus on the first day of class. But we are not required to present the syllabus as the first item of business. Nor are we even required to go over it. Therefore, like Strommel, on the first day of class I talk a little bit about some of the class expectations, but mostly I provide an environment where students are able to get to know each other.

On the second day of class, I ask students if they have any questions about the syllabus. Rarely are there any.

I am not so naïve as to think that my students actually read the syllabus between the first and second day of class. In fact, I assume that virtually none of them read it. This doesn’t bother me because, I would argue, students not reading the syllabus actually facilitates education because it allows me to put the focus on learning instead of on rules and regulations and assignments.

During the semester, I can cite aspects of the syllabus as they become relevant. For example, on the first day of class, there is really no valid pedagogical reason to explain the directions for the final reflection that students will not submit until the last week of the semester; three months after the first day of class. It is better to go over that portion of the syllabus during week 13 or 14.

Although some faculty members might be shocked that I don’t expect—or even care—if students immediately read the syllabus, I have the impression that many faculty members do not even read their own syllabi before distributing them to their students.

How many of us have inserted boilerplate language into our syllabi without reading it? I know that I have been guilty of not carefully reading boilerplate language. As a result, because some poorly written boilerplate language I inlcuded in the syllabus rightly took precedence over my classroom instructions, a student was once able to argue that she ought not to fail my class for academic dishonesty.

Recently, I became aware of a case where some boilerplate language included factually inaccurate information concerning a vital aspect of academic research. Bureaucratic procedures were going to cause a delay of several months to have the boilerplate language corrected. In the meantime, I suspect that many faculty members simply inserted the inaccurate language in their syllabi without reading it. If a student cites the boilerplate language to justify plagiarism or to ridicule the faculty member’s misunderstanding of academic integrity, those faculty members who did not read their own syllabi will be shocked to read what they distributed to their students on the first day of class.

Earlier this week, Dr. Lisa Wade published “10 Things Every College Professor Hates.” Item #4 advises students to consult the syllabus before asking the professor a question. The photograph of Dr. David Lydic wearing a T-shirt that reads “It’s in the Syllabus” went viral last year and has reappeared as the new semester begins this fall. And I have already directed one of my students from this semester to consult the syllabus for an answer to a question she asked; a question answered in part of the syllabus I have already covered. There is a place for “mundane, bureaucratic requirements” in syllabi, but syllabi should be much more than that.

Syllabi should be living documents that are adapted and revised throughout the semester. They should not be the focal point of our courses; especially not on the first day of class.

    –Steven L. Berg, PhD

Photo Caption: Dr. David Lydic

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9 Responses

  1. Ali EL Hariri says:

    I think reading the syllabus in class is not the Professor’s responsibility, students must read the syllabus just before class. It’s not a bad idea to read the syllabus to the students, it will make it easier for the teacher to communicate with students and reduces plenty of time for the coming sessions.

  2. Ali EL Hariri says:

    I think reading the syllabus in class is not the Professor’s responsibility, students must read the syllabus just before class. It’s not a bad idea to read the syllabus to the students, it will make it easier for the teacher to communicate with students and reduces plenty of time for the coming sessions.

  3. Nicholas Mortimer says:

    When it comes to reading the syllabus, there is no reason not to read it. Why would anybody want to take the risk of losing out on points by simply being too lazy to read it. I believe professors don’t have to read it, and it should be their choice if they want to read it or not. All students should read it for the possibility that they could miss something that causes them to lose out on points.

    • Alex Barnes says:

      I completely agree, in many of my classes the syllabus is constantly referred back to by teachers. Not reading it is very ignorant, and will cause you to ask many questions that could be easily avoided. Even if the teacher doesn’t read it all the way through on the first day of class, students should take it upon themselves to, if not read it, at least go over what is covered so they can refer back to it when needed


  4. Jonathan Eldridge says:

    I think that this article is spot on because I have had a professor before that gave us a syllabus and their were tons of mistakes in the syllabus and also I’ve heard of professor saying stuff like “that’s in my syllabus.” it shows how prepared they are and can reflect poorly towards students.

  5. Nicole Lane says:

    I completely agree that nobody really reads the syllabus, and even if you did read the syllabus the first day, not all the information would be locked in your brain. Going about class the first day I believe should be more welcoming and have everyone try and get comfortable with the classmates your going to see for a full semester. Day by day breaking down the syllabus is the best way to go about it, in my opinion it would be a lot more affective.

    Sincerely, Nicole Lane
    English 102am

  6. Steven L. Berg says:

    Dr. Heidebrink-Bruno,

    First, I want to apologize for coming across as critiquing your example. I had been planning to write about syllabi and your article in *Hybrid Pedagogy* was published at an opportune moment. I referenced it to provide an example of quality.

    I can see how my wording could imply that you read your quality syllabi to your students; something that is clearly not the case to anyone who reads your article. For reasons of length, I cut a paragraph from the draft of my blog posting in which I discussed positive aspects of your idea of syllabus as manifesto.

    I think you are absolutely correct that when we return to the syllabus later in the semester, it should not just be to simply point out deadlines or formatting requirements. Although you do a much better job of embedding some of the democratic principles in your syllabi than I do in mine, when I return to the syllabus in later weeks, I incorporate a discussion of the types of principles for which you advocate.

    Because it was outside the main scope of the article, I did not address the issue of negotiations which I agree are very important. I tell my students on day one that there are only two things that are not negotiable in my class: e-mail format and binder requirements; and even then I am not that firm about the e-mail format. I spend time giving the type of context you suggest for these two items. The other assignments are up for negotiation. I tell students that we can fall back on what is detailed in the syllabus, but that I do not want the assignments I have initially suggested to get in the way of learning.

    I work extremely hard to set the right tone both in the syllabi and in how I present them. When I revise my syllabi for next semester, I will be considering some of the points you make in your article.

    I plan to comment on your article in *Hybrid Pedagogy* soon. I am also going to post a link to your comment here is a discussion of my essay that is currently taking place in Facebook. I appreciate the strong points you made and I believe others will as well.

  7. You are absolutely correct in suggesting that reading a syllabus, even a radically different one, is a waste of time. A good syllabus does not replace bad pedagogy. Further, I hope you didn’t feel, as you were critiquing my example, that this was the role my alternatively-designed syllabus would play in the classroom. It is not, and as Jesse suggests, the first day of class is very much about rapport and learning about who your students are.

    Still, the syllabus has a strangely powerful position in the academy. As you attest, “we are required to give students a copy of the syllabus” — that is true of few if any other documents. A document that has 100% reach potential (even if the actual reading reach is much lower) is worth considering anew.

    I, too, imagine referring back to the syllabus 10- and 12- weeks into the semester, but rather than pointing out a deadline or formatting requirement, such a syllabus details founding principles of the class that ensure the democratic learning environment is upheld and the rights of the students are honored. As you will have noticed, my syllabus frequently references the need for student-teacher negotiation and the documents own incompleteness. In this way, it is designed to be a “living document that [is] adapted and revised throughout the semester.”

    The point is: the syllabus has become a formalized component of higher education. In many cases, as you suggest, instructors “insert boilerplate language into our syllabi without reading it.” This is precisely the sort of unintentional cultural artifact I am trying to prevent from being created. They are harmful, as I argue in my article. An educator who wants more intentional design of his or her class cannot rely on the slow and distant additions of administrative language. A well-designed, critically considered syllabus is a small part of a much larger project of developing a highly-intentional learning environment.

    Thank you for bringing me into conversation with your own teaching practices. I hope these elaborations help clarify the potential of the syllabus, and where it lies in relation to other manifestations of classroom pedagogy.

  8. Christa says:

    Well said!!