The Syllabus as a Contract

How do you deal with clever students who find loopholes you didn’t intend?

July 27, 2016

Every semester, professors are forced to act as prosecutor, judge, and jury as they vigorously defend their course policies, deadlines, and expectations on a seemingly innocent document called the syllabus. What began as a simple list of class topics has morphed into a sort of contract between professor and student.

The concept of the syllabus as contract seems especially apt now, as more and more colleges require faculty members to adopt standard language on various campus policies.

Even once-straightford elements of a syllabus, like due dates, have gotten complicated thanks to technology. In the past, when a due date for an assignment was listed on the syllabus, it was inferred that the assignment was due on that date in class. Now, however, the ability to submit assignments electronically, via course websites such as Blackboard and Canvas, has forced professors to be far more specific.

What happens when smart students find a way to reinterpret the language on your syllabus to their benefit -- in ways that you did not intend?
 Whatever the professor’s intention, when students see a due date on the syllabus, they often assume that the assignment is due via online submission by midnight on that date. Even the midnight rule is murky. Is the assignment due by 11:59 p.m. on the day before the due date? Or by 11:59 p.m. on the listed date? (You can avoid that problem entirely by specifying 11:59 p.m. rather than midnight.)

Technology has forced professors to be extremely specific on these details or else face inevitable challenges from students. And it’s precisely when such challenges arise that both professors and students look to the syllabus as a contract.

But what happens when smart students find a way to reinterpret the language on your syllabus to their benefit — in ways that you did not intend? Should faculty members in those situations vigorously defend their intent or yield?

One way to deal with students who believe they have cleverly found a loophole in some policy on your syllabus is to turn to the court system has dealt with defiant "students" of the law (i.e., defendants) for hundreds of years. Although it is frustrating when a clearly guilty defendant must be released because his lawyer found some gap in the law, the court begrudgingly does so and then proceeds to patch the hole so as not to be caught in the awkward position of being outwitted again.

The concept of amending our legal system as loopholes are discovered can be transferred to the syllabus. When students challenge some provision of the syllabus, the professor must (reluctantly) set the students free and then amend the syllabus so that this loophole is not rediscovered in a future semester.

In essence, the syllabus should be considered a fluid document, which is never completed. Regardless of whether the professor has taught a class for a year or 30 years, the syllabus must evolve. Departments or entire institutions should set up forums where faculty members can share common loopholes and thus help their colleagues get ahead of the "law" of the syllabus.

When students find a loophole, all you can do is honor it, and then make sure it is eliminated.
Under contract law, any unwritten terms and agreements reached before the signing of a contract, or any changes made after it is executed, are not recognized by the courts, which invoke the adage, "It must be in writing." If the syllabus is to be regarded as a contract with our students, then the same adage must be applied.

Getting it in writing is important for several reasons. For instance, it provides a road map for both students and professors. Clearly defining expectations allows professors to remain impartial and avoid being viewed as playing favorites.

That holds true, however, only when professors routinely enforce the policies on their syllabi. When we don’t, we are essentially telling students that the syllabus does not matter. Under contract law, when provisions of a contract are not enforced, the court can hold that an offender cannot be forced to follow a provision that the offended party failed to enforce in the first place.

Letting your syllabus rules slide all semester long — only to enforce them during finals week — will leave students asking themselves, "Why me? Why now?"

We are not doing our colleagues any favors, either, when we are lax about enforcing our own syllabus policies. Students may get used to that and be shocked to encounter a professor who actually does adhere to the standards outlined on the syllabus.

Ultimately, you cannot hold a student to an expectation that was unspoken and uncommunicated, merely because you intended the syllabus to be interpreted differently. Professors, being human, cannot always anticipate every error or misconception reached by students regarding our syllabi.

So sure, your syllabus is a contract — but a fluid one, which gets updated and amended regularly. When students find a loophole, all you can do is honor it, and then make sure it is eliminated.

Amber R. Comer is an assistant professor of health sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.