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.