THE Scholarly Web

Weekly transmissions from the blogosphere

January 31, 2013

Do you teach a course that suffers from “syllabus bloat”?

“How long is your syllabus?” asks John Streamas, associate professor in the department of critical culture, gender and race studies at Washington State University, in a guest post on The Irascible Professor blog.

“Five pages? Eight pages? Ten? One syllabus I saw was thirty-one pages long - an entire reading assignment unto itself.”

The author reveals that he is “old enough to remember courses that had no syllabus”, including one that he took on the intellectual history of modern Europe. “On the first day the professor walked into the room, laced his fingers, surveyed his students, said that this would be a good group, then told us that, though this was a history course, we would read novels.”

Without a syllabus the course “flowed organically” through the semester, Professor Streamas writes, “lingering at German cabaret culture, passing quickly through interwar British fascist culture, but always moving”. The students were learning, and the teacher offered useful contextual examples “sometimes off the top of his head, sometimes mapped out in lesson plans he had committed to memory but not to paper or disk. It was one of the best courses I ever took.”

By the time he began teaching, however, Professor Streamas could not dodge the requirement to provide students with a course syllabus. “I did, however, design one course with a syllabus that was only a half-page long. It was the best course I have ever taught.”

In recent years, he continues, new sections in course syllabi have become obligatory at many universities. “Instructions for emergency contact information, referrals for waivers for disabilities, warnings about academic integrity, and - by far the most egregious - the statement of ‘learning outcomes’,” he writes.

“These new compulsory sections are legalistic,” he continues, “designed to create the impression of a consumer-friendly campus with all instructors serving as virtual salespersons and all course material serving as a virtual product for students’ consumption. They reduce the syllabus to the function of the sticker taped to the windows of new cars on dealers’ lots, except that the sticker has the courtesy of being only one page long.”

After reading the blog, Matt Reed, academic vice-president at Holyoke Community College in Massachusetts, used his own Confessions of a Community College Dean blog, hosted by Inside HigherEd, to join the discussion.

“Unfortunately for those of us who prefer brevity, there are actually good reasons for some of the expansion…I don’t see the trend reversing unless and until we devise other ways to address the valid concerns that expanded syllabi address now,” he writes.

“As students have become more willing to challenge the grading judgments of professors - and courts have become more willing to hear them - it has become harder to fall back on the old ‘appeal to authority’ as the answer to any challenge. ‘Because I said so’ doesn’t hold up in court,” he says.

“The first line of inquiry is the syllabus. What rules did the professor set out at the beginning of the term?” he points out.

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