A slight defense of syllabus bloat

September 8, 2011, 7:30 am

Two things I noticed at the start of this semester were (1) the number of articles and blog posts coming out about “syllabus bloat” (see Profhacker, for instance), and (2) the insane degree to which my own syllabi have bloated. My Calculus II syllabus is 12 pages long, for instance, and I wasn’t exactly using 36-point font.

I liked (in a chagrined sort of way) Barbara Fister’s metaphor very much of the syllabus as Terms of Service. Put together all the boilerplate, all the course policies, all the tables of grade assignments, etc. and what you have is not very different from the Terms of Service (ToS) agreements we all click through without a glance when we start up new software. And that’s not a good thing:

The trouble is the syllabus-as-contract is not only tiresome to read, it’s not inspiring. You must, you can’t, you ought – that’s not an itinerary for a trip to someplace new and exciting. And are those behaviors really the point of the course? In this course, you will learn to turn off your cell phone when instructed to do so. You will learn to show up on time. Not that these habits aren’t useful, but … really? Is that what the course is about?

I definitely agree with Barbara that a syllabus-as-ToS is tiresome and uninspiring. But I also believe a full-bodied syllabus, monolithic as it may be, serves some purposes. Namely:

  1. If you make well-crafted rules that cover common contingencies in the course, it makes for fewer headaches — and more importantly, more fairness — down the road. It may take a full page of the syllabus to complete flesh out your policy on late work and makeups. This is uninspiring, legalistic stuff to be sure, but it also gives you something to fall back on when Alice and Bob are both late for the test but Alice has a documented excuse and Bob doesn’t, and you have to treat the cases differently.
  2. It lets students know what the rules are, so that you can put the rules in the background and focus on the course. Students who are new to your classes will reflexively test the boundaries. If the boundaries are there, they’ll register them and move on. If not, all their waking energy will be spent trying to discover them.
  3. It helps you, the professor, remember what the rules are. Last week I had a Calculus II student oversleep a lab. He came in to the office later in the morning, clearly panicked, wanting to apologize (not ask for special treatment). I dimly remembered that I had a syllabus policy for late work — so I looked it up. I was able to point to a policy that allowed for limited makeups for late work, not because I was a nice person but because the syllabus says so. Or rather, the syllabus allows me to be fair (or nice) in advance of any situation, so I can focus on the course.

I’m thinking now that next semester, there will be two documents given out on the first day. One would be a syllabus the way Barbara describes it, the other an actual honest-to-goodness Terms of Service document (I’d even call it that) that holds all the boring, but important, stuff. Two of my courses in the Spring are for computer science majors, and I bet they’d get a kick out of having a ToS for their course.

How about you? Are your syllabi bloated? Does that bother you? And what are you doing about it?

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