Wednesday, February 3, 2010

What's a Syllabus?

Every semester I get an email from the department asking me for my syllabus. What the devil do they want from me?

A syllabus used to be easy to define: it was that piece of paper, or stapled pieces of paper, that the professor handed out the first day of class. Typically a syllabus had certain information in it, but really there was little consistency between professors and across disciplines. The one really consistent thing about the syllabus is that it was the first thing handed out in the semester. Anything that came after was just a "handout". Curious terminology.

When I began teaching virtual classes two things quickly became evident. First, that the "syllabus" took its character in part because of the synchronous nature of f2f teaching. It was the sequence, not the content, that characterized the syllabus. This was rendered irrelevant in a virtual class where *everything* was available from the first day. This forced me to re-think what a syllabus might be.

The second thing I realized was that a traditional syllabus was bounded by the medium. There were only so many pages you could hand to a student on the first day without scaring them to death, so a syllabus tended to be brief and summary. The "handouts" that followed were often elaborations on the syllabus--guides to writing, resources, research, additional reading, and so on. These could have all been handed out the first day and indeed in some disciplines I've seen a whole packet handed out and called a syllabus.

Online, though, there are no real boundaries. A "syllabus" could be as many pages as you liked. I came to understand that students do want a single-page (web page) summary of assignments. They want to know when the due dates are and what is due. My syllabus therefore tends to be very brief but highly linked. The items that are due, those need explanation, right? And due dates should be supplemented by a statement about late assignments and make-up policy. The term paper assignment needs explanation about my expectations, maybe a list of possible paper topics, and so on.

How much of that is the "syllabus"?

All of it. None of it. I've had semesters where I didn't use the word at all. There was a Schedule of Assignments, list of Required Readings, a Study Guide, etc., each as its own page.

But I'm back to a Syllabus page for one simple reason: to keep the History Department off my back. It's not their fault; it's the fault of the accreditation people. They're the ones who require a syllabus for every course, every semester, every teacher.

Here's the amusing part: they want paper. Seriously. The accreditation body wants a piece (or pieces) of paper for every course. That piece of paper needs to be titled "Syllabus". What's on it ... eh.

So our poor secretary has to dun the faculty every semester. She has to have a table where pieces of paper collect which she dutifully files into boxes. And for that jerk Knox, she has to print out a page.

It's bad enough she has to do all this, she shouldn't have to print out multiple pages. She shouldn't have to follow links and figure out what constitutes a syllabus. So I cut her a break and I have a single page with the word Syllabus at the top in nice big letters so she can print it, file it, and forget about it.

And that's what a syllabus is, around here.