Syllabus as Contract, Syllabus as Charter

I’ve always found syllabus to be a funny word. Maybe it’s because it sounds like “silly.” Perhaps it’s the juxtaposition of the rare “syll” with the familiar “bus.” For pedagogues, its etymology is a good reminder to not take ourselves so seriously.

Etymology of syllabus.jpgOne of the hotter topics in HigherEd as of late has been the role of the syllabus. The growth of assessment culture in a litigious and corporatist academy have pushed some faculty to develop syllabuses with pages in the double digits. Accreditation and more are at risk if we take the liberty Kurt Vonnegut did in developing letter-style assignment prompts. Now the rule of thumb is to treat the syllabus as a contract.

When future instructors dream up syllabi–a really good practice for graduate students, by the way–I hardly think that the process entails exciting attendance policies or convicting plagiarism warnings. This time’s left for selecting the right book and crafting the perfect assignments. But rather than bemoan the boiler plate, I wonder if this too should be part of the project. Beneath the fine print are tells from which the student gets a sense of your expectations for the learning experience–good, bad, and ugly.

Two perennial occurrences have lead me to this conclusion.

The First-Week Melt

I’m always jazzed about the first-day of school. The outfit is picked; the soundtrack, poppin’; the schedule, laid out. But I always get a few students who drop the class after seeing what’s in store. What stands out to me are the emails where students explain their reasoning. Many of them say something like,

“Dr. Newton, your class looks really interesting, but I realize that it’s going to require more effort than I had initially expected. I’m a <insert “notoriously difficult pre-professional program here>  major, and I just can’t do it right now. But I hope to take it in a later semester.”

It could be that these students are just nice, but the funny thing is that 75% of these students actually do come back. I’d much rather have a student drop a class than slog through it just to meet some curricular requirement. If a syllabus can incite a student to take responsibility for their learning, then I will write out what the next fifteen-weeks of class is going to look like.

“Do you even care, bro?” 

Religious Studies professors have a reputation of either being really pastoral or destroying people’s worldview. This has to do with a complex disciplinary history about what it is we do and don’t do in relation to religious institutions. The only conversion I’m after is helping students realize “religion” points to a human activity with a complex history of observable expressions that has had subtle and not-so-subtle effects worthy of scrutiny. What this means in terms of one’s own faith or ethics is outside the realm of my class.

Religion Bulletin has a great series called “So You’re Not a Priest? Scholars Explain What They Do To Outsiders.”

At the same time, I’ve also been a pastor in rural, urban, progressive, and evangelical congregations, so I’d be remiss to cite ignorance if I didn’t acknowledge the kinds of intra-personal strife that the humanist study of religion can bring to students. My syllabuses warn students to expect some discomfort. I also list campus resources that students can avail themselves of to work through these issues (i.e. Counseling Services, Chaplain’s Office, Director of Diversity, and to the extent that I can listen– myself). If I confess anything, it’s that I expect students to employ people’s preferred pronouns, inclusive language, and a willingness to hear contrary ideas. [Nothing here is revolutionary by any means or will require me to forfeit my conference name badge, right?]

What caught me off guard was that students have noticed. I have had more of a few students even say, “I really appreciate that you actually care about our well-being.”

Given the mumbled curses I’ve heard about my rigid expectations, I have never expected my syllabuses to communicate care. I’ve started to wonder how I might do so better. And I fear what I’ve unknowingly expressed. Maybe the syllabus can help us work through this.

Syllabus as Charter

What bothers me about the “syllabus contract” model is that it presumes that I’m in charge of the learning process. Anyone who has ever taught–or parented for that matter– knows that students could mutiny and wreck your whole plan. The best teachers are up front about this reality and encourage students to make the most of it for the good of the class.

I remember taking an anthropology of language class in my undergrad. And we were talking about theories of age and language acquisition. Having grown up playing violin, my mind wandered to the Suzuki method under which so many children learn instruments.

Legend has it that Shinichi Suzuki observed how Japanese children manage to learn their “mother tongue,” but many adults struggle with acquiring fluency. He figured that a similar immersive approach could be applied to music pedagogy. Later in my music education, I learned about various controversies regarding Suzuki and his approach, and I was curious if these arguments had parallels with different theories of language-learning.

My anthropology professor said, “Go find out!”

He called an audible and allowed me to do a research paper instead of the traditional final. And I had an absolute blast. I’d never done an independent project like that at the college level and wouldn’t do so again until graduate school. I even wonder if I could have gotten to graduate school without having had some exposure to the research process.

It seems to me that the “syllabus as charter” model may be a better way to go. The professor can set the agenda for learning and be open to chart course corrections. The key is keeping education as the focus.

Charter of King’s College (now University of Toronto),1827)

Many of the articles on the growing syllabus say something that teaching requires an evolution–stuff like you can’t teach the same class for thirty years. Who’s to say that this evolution shouldn’t happen within the term?

I suppose from one point of view this is a breach of contract. The way I see it, if we’re not open to increased learning possibilities–and we’re not helping students to be as well–aren’t we’re giving them a raw deal?

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

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