Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Death to the syllabus?

A number of my colleagues (mostly non-philosophers) had a provocative discussion last week of Mano Singham's article "Death to the syllabus" (Liberal Education, fall 2007) The article is facially a call
to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.
However, I think Singham's concerns about the syllabus are proxies for deeper issues (similar to Chris' concerns about who's in control in the classroom) about the balance of power in the classroom and the role instructors play in creating a climate conducive to learning.

Singham's main point seems to be that contemporary rule-infested syllabi, with their legalistic maze of rules and policies designed to cover every conceivable contingency, omit
any mention of learning. They list the assigned readings but not reasons why the subject is worth studying or important or interesting or deep, or the learning strategies that will be used in the course. The typical syllabus gives little indication that the students and teacher are embarking on an exciting learning adventure together, and its tone is more akin to something that might be handed to a prisoner on the first day of incarceration.

In short, the legalistic syllabus is an intrinsic motivation killer: Whatever excitement the subject might generate is swamped by minutiae about how grades are calculated, the policy for coming to class late, and so on. In the frenzy to honor the notion of syllabi as "legally enforceable contracts" between instructors and students, we have (Singham claims) become victims of administrator-driven "syllabus creep."

I find some truth both in Singham's observations and his worries: I've seen 15-20 page syllabi that lay out, in absurd detail, the answers to every conceivable question one might have about the course content, requirements, policies, and the like. What seems right to me about Singham's article is that we faculty produce the syllabus and it's typically the first 'official' communicative act toward the students in a course, and because of this, it has significant impact on the tone of our interactions with them. The messages of the legalistic syllabus that Singham parodies? That we, the faculty, are in charge. That these intricate rules and policies are what will chiefly govern our interactions with the students. That our interaction is a kind of contrived game where we make the rules and they figure either how best to satisfy them or how to exploit the loopholes in them. In my estimation, Singham is probably correct that the legalistic syllabus is received (even if not intended) as an instrumental of control, which is diametrically opposed to what we know about how people, especially late- or post-adolescent age college students, respond to controlling environments:

a detailed legalistic syllabus is diametrically opposed to what makes students want to learn. There is a vast research literature on the topic of motivation to learn, and one finding screams out loud and clear: controlling environments have been shown consistently to reduce people’s interest in whatever they are doing, even when they are doing things that would be highly motivating in other contexts.

So ironically, the legalistic syllabus creates the conditions where students respond to our authority with disengagement, defiance, even subtle antagonism. Faculty have
assumed that we have to teach in an authoritarian manner because of the way students are. However, all the literature on student motivation has convinced me that the opposite is likely to be true: students act the way they do because we treat them the way we do.
All that being said, I don't think Singham's reaction to all this is entirely on target. First off, my own syllabi are reasonably detailed and rarely run longer than six pages. But that aside, his own strategy, to ditch the traditional syllabus in favor of a general outline of readings and writing assignments later augmented by grading standards decided upon collectively, strikes me as an overreaction (though I should say that giving students some autonomy can be a good thing). For one, some 'legalistic' aspects of the syllabus are ways of respecting students' right to make educational and personal choices. Many of my students have jobs and families and have an understandable expectation that they should know what's expected of them in my course (and when). Second, I think the context in which the syllabus is presented matters. To start off on the first day of class by distributing a lengthy syllabus probably does send the counterproductive messages Singham identifies. That's why I wait until near the end of the first class meeting, or even until the second class meeting, to distribute the syllabus. Those first moments should be about, well, philosophy: what makes the particular topics invigorating, why they interest me, why they should interest students. Learning, in a word.


  1. I have a standardized, legalistic, syllabus... but I also think that the worst way to kill a class is to go over all the rules in the first day. If I were to just give it to them and tell them to read it, they'd NEVER do so.

    I've developed a take-home syllabus quiz that asks them about the high points --- it seems to work to create the classroom atomosphere I'm looking for.

  2. ps... sorry about the large blank space in my previous comment, my cat jumped on the keyboard and hit the space bar.

  3. I take Michael's approach: I give out the syllabus at the end of the first day, after doing some philosophy. The first part of the syllabus tells them what the course is about, what they're going to learn, and what they're going to do to learn it. The middle part tells them how they're grade is calculated, policies, etc. The last part gives them a list of topics and readings by class session.

    I think of the syllabus more like a "constitution" for the class than a criminal code. It outlines my powers (yes, I can and will fail you for cheating) and their limits (no, I can't grade arbitrarily or fail you for skipping class a few times). I think students have a right to know about those things up front.

    As for the challenge of getting them to read it, last semester I tried putting them in small groups and having them brainstorm questions about the course. Then I handed out the syllabus and had each group try to find answers to all their questions, which most did. At least this familiarized them with the layout of the syllabus.

  4. One of my thoughts in starting a philosophy course, and then, just about any course, came to be about who controlled the discussion and what went on in the class.

    Yes, the professor put together a syllabus, developed lectures about specific topics, had us read certain pieces of the literature, but, there was something about the course of the discussion which seemed important, for the student, to capture.

    I've thought this concern for control had to do with the feeling that there was something wrong in being a student who passively soaked up the wisdom and nuggets of knowledge dispensed by the prof. The problem was that I did not think we were learning anything by just soaking up stuff. The solution seemed to be to somehow get to a place where there was an actual discussion going on between the prof. and the rest of the class.

    Hence, it seemed the thing to do was to somehow work to control the discussion, to somehow break the discussion away from where the prof's syllabus told us we were going.

    It seemed that the syllabus also reminded us that the problems we were going to be discussing had not been solved. That is, the people who we were reading were telling us that their discussion had travelled a certain way, and then they had to give up.

    Once one had the idea about where the syllabus was going, sort of, once we knew the rules, it seemed we should want to get off syllabus somehow, to break the rules. The point of breaking the rules, then, is to succeed where the syllabus documents where others have failed.

    I'd want a classroom atmosphere where there was some sense that we could be surprised and that by our discussion we could make some headway.

  5. Students who are generally new to the topic--especially in philosophy classes--won't understand or care what the justification for the various reading assignments, papers, etc. is. With any luck, at the end of the semester they will be able to see the sense of the syllabus and the course design. Getting them to see that, with the presumption that they need to see that, is the point of the course.

  6. jcasey: Do you have some evidence to support the claim that students new to philosophy won't "care or understand" about the justifications for what's read, how the assignments are structured, etc.? It doesn't jibe with my own experience, nor is it well-supported by the literature on learning and motivation, where a central theme is that students are more motivated to learn when they can appreciate how the various learning tasks or elements of a course work together to help them learn. That's not inconsistent with your position that students' coming to appreciate these connections is an aim realized at the end of a course. Yet for many students, that may too late for that realization to have any motivational impact.

  7. Hey Michael--

    Nice of you to respond. Two things. First, I'm thinking of students new to a topic--as are many of my students in critical thinking. Many of them have never had a college course so they wouldn't recognize the justifications I might give in a syllabus (for how the syllabus is as it as). Come to think of it, however, (this is the second thing), I spend a lot of time during class reflexively talking about learning for this very reason. I just don't make it a part of my syllabus.

    On a related note. So few of my students read the syllabus that the non presence of motivating factors such as why we're learning what we're learning (which again, is a feature of every class meeting, at least for me) would probably pass unnoticed were it there.

    For the reasons mentioned, I think discussions of why the subject is worth studying, methods of learning and so forth, are probably better and more effectively held in class.

    None of this means, of course, that one shouldn't include them also in a syllabus.

    Again--thanks (and I love the blog--keep it up).


  8. jc, thanks for the clarification and kind remarks about ISW. I too don't think that the syllabus itself is the best place to try and establish in the students' minds the links between the course goals and its structure, activities, etc. I would add though that, even with students with no college background, they benefit from seeing these links (and indeed it shows them a kind of respect as learners that I doubt many students got very often prior to college.)

    As for students not reading the syllabus: I think that counts as academic conventional wisdom that's dubious if not just plain wrong. Google the phrase "Calhoon Becker course syllabus" and click on the article "How students use the course syllabus."

  9. Dear Michael,

    It's been my experience that in large numbers they don't read the syllabus--but that evidence is anecdotal. Besides, that doesn't keep me--or really anyone I hope--from taking the construction of the syllabus very seriously. I suppose you're probably right that at least some minimum motivation ought to be given for the way the course is structured. As I think of this, I'm reminded of some lines I put in my syllabi. E.g., "writing is one of the ways you do philosophy, for this reason . . ." So perhaps I qualify. In any case, thanks for that reference and the conversation--


  10. I think that it's very difficult to make generalizations about these sorts of issues. At least in this area I am very wary of so-called empirical evidence. So much depends on class-size, the character of the student body, the personality of the teacher, etc. I have a highly legalistic syllabus and I go over it painstakingly and painfully on the first day of my courses. It's a warning and I intend it to be. If you are not ready to work very, very hard, you shouldn't take my courses. I think of it as full disclosure.

  11. I am of a very, very split mind on this. As it stands, I have a legalistic syllabus. But it's not for everyone. It's for that one student. You know who I'm talking about too. The one who will try to exploit every ambiguity, every attempt by you to be "open" to how to do things. My syllabus is designed to head that student off at the pass.

    I would prefer to have a much more open syllabus, to allow for autonomy of direction on the part of the class, not just for content, but for how it should be covered.

    But I can't get past that one student. Are you willing to "give" that student what he/she doesn't deserve?

  12. Apropos of this discussion, a funny thing happened yesterday. During my 8 O'Clock Critical Thinking course a question regarding class policies came up, and, thinking of this conversation, I threw it back at the class--who can tell me the grading scale? One person could. Then when I asked how many read the syllabus 3 hands (out of 30) went up. I put the same questions to the following section, and got more or less the same response. Inspired by this, and the previous discussion above with Michael, I think will insert some questions on the course evaluation about the syllabus.

    In other matters, I would love to have a more open-ended syllabus. But students have a right to have a coherent sense of what's expected of them before they sign on for 14 weeks of it. With an open-ended syllabus, they could reasonably wonder, things could not go their way. Just a thought.


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