Syllabus bloat: the ever-lengthening college syllabus

A professor discusses the reasons why college syllabi keep getting bigger:

Nowadays my course syllabi tend to run to many pages and always include a punctilious day-by-day calendar of the semester stipulating, for example, precisely which pages in what book students need to have read for class.  My instructions to students concerning formal written work have also become replete with prescription in a way that I would not have thought necessary even ten years ago.  Colleagues concur that instructors at the state-college level can take little or nothing for granted about student preparedness and that everything, absolutely everything, must be spelled out in advance.  Without abundant guidance and prescription, students complain of being lost, as perhaps they are, or of “not understanding what the professor wants,” as is perhaps the case…

First-year college students have a drastically diminished vision of what higher education portends for them.  The idea of discipline that enabled my UCLA instructors to assume procedural competency in their students, and that enabled most students to acquit themselves during the term with only a minimal syllabus, no longer exists…

The enlargement of the syllabus also stems from the need to define, explain, and insofar as possible justify the course itself, something that no syllabus from my undergraduate career ever bothered to do.  The syllabus of my survey of ancient literature (“Western Heritage”) addresses the basic notion of historical indebtedness, the idea of continuity of insight, and of the dignity of knowledge as opposed to ignominy of ignorance.  The syllabus also addresses the difficulty of reading; it tells students that an epic poem by Homer or a philosophical dialogue by Plato is not like a TV drama or a movie, in which in the first few minutes, one can predict the remainder…

Some of this effort—and much of the hypertrophied syllabus—is precautionary. It is precautionary on behalf of students, who, from day one, will know in advance every requirement and assignment of the course. It is also precautionary on behalf of the syllabus-writer, who seeks protection from petulant students claiming they never knew the schedule or failed to receive procedural knowledge concerning the semester.  Syllabus in hand, no one can plead ignorance.

The general idea is this: today’s college students need college explained to them, point by point. This could quickly turn into a generational argument that is bigger than just college classes: the role of college has changed from a place of learning to four years of job training. Society, and consequentially, college students simply don’t know what college is about when they should and professors have to do the extra work to explain it. This could also be tied to the issue that a number of college students are not ready to do college-level work.

There may be some truth to this but, as the article hints at, there could be good reasons to have longer syllabi:

1. Expectations are made clear from the beginning. This could cut down student’s anxiety as there is less “guesswork” involved. If a relatively short document (compared to books/journal articles) can help eliminate ignorance, why not?

2. Why not have a short part of the syllabus that explains what the class is about? Certain subjects, like sociology, are relatively unknown and a one or two paragraph introduction can give students a engaging foundation.

3. I like having the day-to-day calendar for myself so why not provide it for the students as well? Perhaps this is just because I like to be organized.

4. I wonder if a detailed and longer syllabi just by its thoroughness conveys to students the importance of the task. Some students may groan at seeing how much there is to read but others will feel the gravity.

We could transfer these ideas to another context: would many employees find it acceptable if they came to work each day with little idea of what to expect? On one hand, we should promote internal motivation but some structure is helpful. We can rue the loss of “gravity” and “mystery” that students have or feel regarding college or we can try to convey these ideas in our syllabi and what we say and do in the classroom.

h/t Instapundit

0 thoughts on “Syllabus bloat: the ever-lengthening college syllabus

  1. Pingback: Juvenile Instructor » Oz Behind the Curtain, Part 4: The Syllabus

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