The Syllabus: Roadmap or Contract?

In my various orientation meetings about being a Teaching Assistant/Teaching Fellow (a grad student instructor rather than just an assistant to an instructor) at my university, we’ve covered the importance of the syllabus more times than I care to count.  Faculty explained to us critical elements such as laying out grading procedures and rubrics so that students feel grading is as fair as it can be, and the importance of setting the tone for your classroom with policies on technology use, absences, and other things important for the class but not found in the university handbook.  The syllabus, it was explained over and over again, is a roadmap to the class, letting students know what to reasonably expect from the class and giving them a sense of what’s expected from them.  It should give important dates for major papers, exams, and importantly, list the books they need to buy and when they need to do readings/assignments.  It gives an expectation of the shape of the class — what we intend to do and how we intend to do it, as partners in an effort to understand and interpret the class materials rather than an imposed, unchanging structure of demands.  I like that sense.  It adheres to my personal teaching philosophy and my sense of the humanities of being responsive and context-driven at their best.

The syllabus also provides a way to answer the same five or six questions over and over again.

One of the things my institution does at teaching orientations is bring in a handful of undergrads and have a panel where they talk about what they expect from TAs/instructors, what makes a great TA/instructor, and what things they wished their TAs/instructors knew.  And the thing that surprised me routinely was the assertion that the syllabus should be written in stone, and anything else was unfair to students.  We just didn’t understand the demands on their time and how much changing the syllabus hurt them.  “Don’t ever change the syllabus!” they said over and over.  “Once we put things in our planners, that’s it, we can’t change things.  You don’t understand how busy we are.  We plan going home around our syllabus.”

It was an odd assertion to me.  I remarked on it to my fiancé when I got home that day, then didn’t really bother to think about it much.  I’m not teaching this semester, my relationship to syllabi is as a student, not as an instructor.  I got my syllabi, plugged in all the due dates and assignments into my calendars, and made my general outline for the semester.  No big deal.  When professors have given additional assignments or changed due dates, I’ve shifted plans around and made time to do the things asked of me, despite my class load of 3 800-level seminar courses and the demands of life outside school, to say nothing of research and professional development.  That, to me, is part of the contract of being a student.  You invest your time in your classes, you respond to the classes appropriately, and you do the work as assigned or face the consequences.  You are responsive to the work, the same way you are responsive to the demands made upon you in a job.  Sometimes, you work overtime.  Sometimes, you have light weeks.  That’s the nature of the commitment.  And it’s a mutual one, as the professors are committed to being there with you, working through the same material and handling your problems, concerns, and grading your assignments.

I’ve had professors who have made egregious syllabus changes — I remember clearly a professor in my first MA program who decided to bump up the due date for a major paper three weeks, and announced the change the week before it was due without warning or context.  That was particularly bad, and felt distinctly unfair.  (I dislike the “unfair” claim, but when an instructor makes it harder to complete a major assignment without any justification, that seems a relevant accusation.)  But there was a process for handling it.  A few of us talked to the instructor, and when she didn’t budge, we talked to the academic dean about whether or not this was a thing allowed.  It wasn’t, in fact.  When major papers take the place of final exams, they had to be due during exam week save with dispensation from the college.  The problem was not the change in the syllabus itself.  It was the nature of the change and the fact that the change substantially altered the course and put it in conflict with college policies.

Because that was the thing — the syllabus was a roadmap, and when you’re reasonably anticipating your roadmap takes you to Las Vegas, suddenly discovering at the end of the trip that you actually need to go to Spokane and you need to get there tomorrow means that your map isn’t very good in laying out the pace and distance of the trip.  And while some syllabi are better roadmaps than others, they should reasonably and accurately lay out the route taken and the expectations for how the trip is going to go.  A four day hard drive across the US is very different from a three week lazy roadtrip.  And it’s good teaching to differentiate between the two when it comes to laying out how the class is going to go.  It’s also good teaching (perhaps bare minimum teaching) to make sure your policies and assignments fall in line with institutional guidelines and rules.

This was an issue that cropped up again today when I saw an article on HuffPost College: “Dear Professor, Some of Us Work 40 Hours a Week.”  In it, Fernando Hurtado asserts that because of his intense work schedule that he has taken on in response to the cost of college and student indebtedness, he cannot handle changes to the syllabus.  And because 20% of students work full time in addition to college, professors who value getting paid out of student’s tuition dollars oughtn’t add assignments to the syllabus with less than 24 hour notice because students already work hard enough.  The syllabus, Hurtado suggests, should be locked in stone because of the demands on student time and because professors have no sense of what it means to be a busy student.

As I read it — with some sympathy because I understand the pressure and demands of being a student with a strained schedule where sleep barely fits, but with some derision because he admits that he chooses to work and resists pressure from his parents to rely on his financial aid package instead of stretching himself so thin (to say nothing of his assertion that his tuition pays professor salaries instead of the reality of adjuncting and the relationship between tuition and instructor pay) — I realised this is smack-dab in the middle of the same battle over the concept of the syllabus.  Is the syllabus a roadmap, loose but reasonably clear, inherently flexible and responsive to the needs of the class?  Or is it a contract, locked in stone and unchanging in order to give students the certainty of what is expected from them and when?

The contract seems to stem from the culture of American public schools, where students are chronically overbooked, overtested, overworked, and overobligated.  Having done some work on secondary education in the US and read about the homework and testing loads present in American classrooms, I can see where the student need for the contract model comes from.  With the anticipation that everything is going to be competing for limited resources of time, attention, and rigor, if the syllabus changes then the student is suddenly faced with a scheduling crisis.  There are often not enough hours in the day for public school students who want to attend top colleges to do everything expected of them in addition to sleeping, eating, and socialising.  Couple that chronic anxious overcommitment with the increasingly dominant business model of higher education, and students seem to expect high output for their invested tuition dollars — that is to say, good grades.  (This is not to suggest that all students feel entitled to good grades because they paid tuition.  But it is certainly a current present in the stream.)  Professors are contractors producing a product, and students as consumers of that product are in a contractual relationship to know exactly what they’re getting.  The syllabus becomes like a work agreement rather than an outline of learning outcomes and course themes — you will work this many hours performing these tasks, and no more.  Anything else, any additions without compensation, become unpaid overtime.  And a boss that demands unpaid overtime is cruel, unethical, and oblivious to the realities of work.

I am resistant to this model, admittedly.  Perhaps obviously.  I am resistant to the business model of higher education to begin with, and my sense is that the contract syllabus is part and parcel of the commodification of learning.  Instead of a guide to the reasonable expectations of the class, it has to be locked in stone so that students aren’t expected to do more for a given class than they agreed to at the beginning of the term.  And that’s a troubling development.  It means that the instructor has limited flexibility to address issues that arise in the class or shift assignments in response to student needs or struggles.  In the humanities especially, this strikes me as the worst model of instruction possible.  And yet, at the same time, I don’t know how we respect the intense levels of pressure students are under without agreeing to give them so much work and no more.  Does that respect for their pressure and workloads mean we ignore learning opportunities that arise during the semester and avoid adding sources, ideas, lectures, and events that could deepen their understanding or illuminate ideas they’ve struggled with in the classroom?

I don’t know what the answer is.  But I sense that the contract model of syllabi, especially in larger institutions, is here to stay for the foreseeable future.  And I feel it is quite possibly one of the nails in the coffin of the idea of a liberal arts education.  The humanities don’t thrive in contracts and limitations.  They’re at their best when they’re flexible, responsive, interdisciplinary, and relevant to the world in which students live.  Can we make the humanities do all of those things if we must teach only to the context we imagined for a class in the weeks before the semester started?  Or can we reasonably expect students to meet us halfway as partners in learning, adapting their expectations of the class and writing in their planners in pencil instead of sharpie?


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