Saturday, January 13, 2007

Stupid Syllabus Rules

It's that time of the semester, time to make sure I'm "in compliance" with the rules of the syllabus. You'd think that would be easy. After all, a syllabus needs to do certain things:

1) The syllabus must outline the assignments for the course so that students know what they need to do, know when assignments and exams are scheduled.

2) The syllabus must state course policies re attendance, late work, participation and so forth.

3) The syllabus must state how grading works in the class.

4) The syllabus must state when the instructor's office hours are and where (that's a toughie for some adjuncts, I know. I shared a trailer. Been there, done that, got lucky and got out). And also give instructions for getting hold of the instructor (phone, email info).

That's about it, right? Or so I thought when I started this gig, and so I went on for a good long while. Each term, the chair would request syllabus copies and I would dutifully send mine forth. Each year, my reviewers would use syllabus copies along with my other materials to evaluate my teaching activities. So someone was checking and going to tell me if I weren't doing it right? Nothing was ever said.

A couple of years ago, I was asked to do a course update form; it's a sort of pro-forma exercise. You fill out a form that basically says "this course is filling a need in the way we think it should," turn in a syllabus, and so forth. Or so I was told. My form came back to me saying that the Dean's office in charge of such things requires that the syllabus list its goals and the goals from the university list that the course is attempting to achieve. (Notice my verbal handstands to avoid the plural of "syllabus"?) It does, I wondered? Since when? Since the Dean changed the rules and notified us in a rambling email no one bothered to read.

So, I started in on my goals: the goal of this course is that you should read Shakespeare's texts and learn about the contexts of the period and theatrical practices. I ticked off a bunch of the university goals, stopping short of numerical competency, despite the fact that we DO use Act, scene and line numbers, and I have been known to ask students to know what a pentameter is. Still, modesty forbids my making a math claim.

And then when it got sent back, I revised again, this time after consulting with one of our ed folks. I made the course goals purposefully vague and reminiscent of the university goals. No mention of Shakespeare, or theatrical practices. Lots of critical thinking type language. That time, it passed.

And so, now we have to put in all sorts of goals, couched in "ed speak" that has little connection to what I do in the classroom. Yes, my students do practice critical thinking and analysis, but my secret goal is to teach them something about Shakespeare.

Then I joined the committee in charge of course updates and such for our department. So I did another course update, this one on a class I've taught, but not for several years. The prof who teaches it is certifiably wonderful and has an incredible syllabus laid out. The Dean's office bounced my update back, complaining that the syllabus was "too detailed." The Dean's office administrative assistant patiently counseled me to make up a more basic syllabus. So in half an hour or so, I made a list of topics and texts by the week, one that the current teacher of the course would NEVER in a million zillion years want to teach, and turned that in. And it passed with flying colors.

A colleague on my committee turned in her course update the next week, and got it bounced back because it used the wrong language for part of the course policies statement. Evidently, if you say anything on your syllabus about academic dishonesty (the university code for plagiarism and cheating of all sorts), your language has to be very specific AND you have to include a "link" to an on-line web page. So my syllabus that quotes the student handbook definition of academic dishonesty and refers students there with a reference, nope, not kosher. I need a link. How, we ask, does one "link" in a paper text? There is no answer. That's apparently our problem. BUT, if you have NOTHING about academic dishonesty, you're good to go.

This seems stupid. It's a rule for the sake of having a rule, rather than for the sake of helping us work well with students and each other. It's better to have a definition of academic dishonesty than not, isn't it? And better to refer students with a proper bibliographic reference (you know, that's what we ask students to use in papers, right?) than not?

And that on-line web page that we're supposed to link to? It's a dead link right now. Seriously.

Then another colleague did his update. Using what I'd learned, he mocked up a fake syllabus, did his form complete with the specific academic dishonesty language required (and a url in place of a link).

And it got bounced back to him. Want to guess why? This time the Dean says that we have to use the syllabus most recently used for the class; we can't mock up a syllabus. Oh, and the goals list? That has to be really specific to the class and can't mostly echo the university goals, which have to be put in separately. And don't claim to meet more than a couple of the university goals or you'll be held to them: so does your class teach something about art(s) or critical thinking skills? Choose one, please, because you can't have both if you're also claiming that it teaches communication (you know, reading, writing). And don't claim historical contexts, because that would be too many goals!

Three or four weeks and the Dean's rules have changed again.

There are things I'm willing to go with the flow about, and syllabus language about academic dishonesty is fine. Just give me a template, put it up on the web so that we all have instant access at 2am the day classes start and I'll do it.

But I hate the ever moving target of what we're supposed to do.

So now, to be in compliance: I need either nothing about academic dishonesty, or the specific Dean's language, a list of the goals for my course, a list of how the course meets whatever university goals. You know where this is going, right? If I make my course goals about, say, critical thinking and historical consciousness, then at some point, the university is going to come to me and say either

1) Why aren't you listing communication as a goal, too? Shouldn't you be teaching writing?


2) Since you aren't teaching any writing in that class, we're going to push the enrollment from 35 to 70. (Yes, even though the course update I turned in has peer editing days on the calendar and shows grading based in large part on papers.)

And yes, all those goals statements and academic dishonesty statements DO add at least a page to every syllabus. One copy to each student. 100 students.

More dead trees.

When I moved into my current house, I planted several trees. When I was in the Peace Corps, I planted trees. (And dug latrines, and did lots of other stuff.) I think I need to plant some more trees this spring.


  1. Holy crap. I think "stupid" is an understatement, and you have my sympathies.

  2. Anonymous1:14 PM

    Oh, I relate to your story. The 13 course revisions and new proposals I wrote last spring were just accepted by our Senate committee and approved by the Provost/President. (Well, most of them -- the ones that had the extra narrative for special gen ed credit outside my department haven't yet been read by that committee.)
    I was a thorough writer, thinking that when they said they wanted specific assessments, they wanted specific assessments. Nope. No fancy mention of writing journals and article summaries, just "writing assignments." And, could I please use a specific set of words from Bloom's taxonomy to describe what was done, so that I could demonstrate critical thinking skills. Never mind that the objectives and assessments already delineated those things ... must have words!
    I conclude that all the rules are designed to make people who don't understand content and curriculum feel like they are contributing to the intellectual well-being of the students. Because they don't understand that part either!

  3. If anyone needs to plant trees, it's the Dean. In fact, there should be a rule stating that any person or group that makes a decision resulting in additional paperwork should be required to plant a concomitant number of trees.

  4. I'm with Bev: the Dean should plant the trees. This would also have the secondary effect of keeping him or her out of the office so that no more stupid rules about a syllabus could be promulgated.

  5. The important thing to remember is that Deans and other admin types wear ties. This is very similar to a hangman's noose. Often times, it can constrict the flow of blood to the brain. This could be the cause of your problems.

    My Dean is sane (he seldom wears a tie). My chair is less useful (he loves to wear a tie). I think that these things could be related!

    Of course, there are then the co-workers who never wear ties, bus still have shown almost no signs of intellectual activity for years. So, this may not be a complete explanation.

    The CP

  6. Anonymous1:48 PM

    Do you mind if I print this out and give it to our ed people here? Especially the ones in the teaching center?

  7. Um, so long as your "here" isn't my "here" and doesn't get me into trouble, you're welcome to print it out and give it to anyone you'd like.

    They're going to hate me, aren't they?