It’s the time of the year where we dust off our syllabi and get everything ready for the start of the semester. The syllabus has an almost mystical aura around it. We talk about it as if it is the educational bullet-proof vest that protects against cheating, grade complaints, and the hapless student who ignores due dates. We hope that reading it will give students a superhero confidence as they enter our classroom fully aware of how we expect them to behave and what they will be required to do. One problem is that very few students read the entire document, and many avoid it completely.
A syllabus has grown from a few pages of key info to a multi-page treatise on the course content and all of the possible things that could happen in a course and how that would be handled. Technical failures? Check! Family emergency? Check! Weather or natural disaster? Check! The syllabus covers it all and if something new presents itself, then that new policy and paragraph can be added for next semester. Over time it becomes a second-text for a course.
The syllabus, with all its imperfections and potentially overreaching importance, is most definitely a key document for a course. Christy Wampole wrote a eloquent explanation and ode to the syllabus in the New York Times where she explained what the syllabus does,”First, it sets parameters and expectations, ties up logistical strings, and establishes an implicit ethic for the course. One quickly gets a sense of the laxness or rigidity of the instructor, of his or her attitude toward hierarchy and punctuality and respect.” What an amazing document that can establish expectations and give students a sense for what their next few weeks or months in a class will be like.
At Maricopa, we have some key guidelines for the syllabus. There are a number of required elements and here at GCC, we have moved the syllabus elements to a template to help you and students more easily navigate these potentially text-heavy documents. The more consistent faculty at GCC are about what information is included, where it is located, and how it looks, the easier it is for students to make sense of the syllabus and find what they need. This template helps structure the requirements. Take a look at the syllabus template and optional elements to help you craft your syllabus for next semester. The optional elements are non-required items that you may want to include.
In terms of the nuance, tone, and “sense” that Wampole describes, that is up to you. She gives another view of the syllabus with the following description, “Another way to see it is as a kind of constitution, a set of guiding principles for the community at hand.” It is a great thing if the syllabus presents guiding principles for a course, but it is important to remember that guiding principles mean very little if no one reads them. It is a good practice to make sure that students read and understand this important class document. A classroom discussion, syllabus review, or quiz over the key points can help you make sure that students are paying attention to your “course constitution.”
As you review, revise, and write your syllabi for this semester, good luck in balancing the compliance and rule-establishing component of your syllabus with the community and tone-creating component of your syllabus. Take a look at the article by Wampole and harness your syllabus “artist” to make a document that best represents you and your content to a fresh group of eager students.