Friday, January 08, 2010

Syllabus Hell

Sometimes it feels like writing a syllabus is an exercise in trying to prevent students from finding loopholes so that they can blame me for whatever goes wrong.

It's the "but you didn't say on the assignment sheet that we had to cite the text, so how can you grade me down for that?"

And, "but you didn't say I couldn't copy from S*notes to do the assignment, and it's too hard to do myself!"

Or, "but I emailed it to you before midnight, how could you count it late?"

So then I end up writing in the syllabus that I don't accept work by email but then there's a student who has a health issue and needs to email things and doesn't think I'll accept it, so I add a phrase about "without express permission," and before long, I'm handing out a 6 page syllabus that sounds like bad lawyer language and doesn't convey anything about how exciting it is to study Shakespeare. The next phase is that I cut out a bunch of the lawyer language, and try to get across my excitement about the texts, but them someone insists on handing in scrawled assignments and complains that I didn't tell them that they couldn't handwrite their work, and the legalistic stuff starts in again. And around I go.

But it doesn't matter, because even if I put in there that I don't accept emailed assignments, students still email me assignments because they don't remember seeing it on the syllabus or going over it the first day, and why would they, since it's an 8 page syllabus by that time.

And we're all supposed to tell students on EVERY syllabus what the goals of the school are. (Does anyone else have to do this?) Because somehow, if students know what the goals are, then they'll tell the assessment folks that yes, they know what the goals of the school are, as if somehow us telling them that they're supposed to learn critical thinking skills actually contributes in any way whatsoever to their actually learning critical thinking skills.

I wonder how much paper we collectively waste every semester with our goals statements? I'm less bothered that we put in statements about accomodating people with special needs or how to get help from the deans' office. But I hate the goals statements. At least no one is telling me I have to put a FERPA statement and a full explanation of their FERPA rights on every syllabus. (Just wait, though, some assessment person will read this and think, hey, what a great idea!)

I have one class pretty much done, calendar, syllabus, and all assignments.

I have another class partially done, calendar, assignments thought of but not written down. Syllabus can be partially canibalized.

I have another class hardly worked on. I got to the point in the calendar when I need to do a library day, and I don't want to have to totally rearrange things if the library can't do the day I've requested.

I have one big committee task done, two thank you letters (one more to do) and some office cleanup.

I wish it would warm up enough to make going outside minimally pleasant. (While it's in the teens, the wind chill makes it closer to 1F. That's minus 11 and minus 17 for the Celsius folks among us. Celsius always makes winter sound much tougher, doesn't it?


  1. I don't know if this would work in the humanities but... I had a COBOL tutor (which will tell any geeks in the audience how long ago this was) who marked everyone's first assignment with red pen everywhere. Everyone lost heaps of marks for all sorts of trivial things.

    Much howling complaint "you didn't tell us!" all answered with a calm "you didn't ask".

    What he was teaching was that you have to know what the specifications are. That when writing a program you can't assume, you have to check everything.

    When the next assignment was handed out everyone read it closely then the questions started. What about this, what about that, do we need to worry about this. The rules were hammered out: if he could think of it and we didn't then it was fair game to lose marks. If he made a ruling about something he had to stick with that ruling for the rest of the semester or give advance notice of the change.

    I can't remember any COBOL, but I do nail down specifications as tightly as I can! And my relentless questioning about edge cases and possible inputs and future plans (Which make a difference to program logic in some cases) has changed the requestor's ideas about what they are trying to do and what might happen when their program gets used.

    I suppose in today's higher education you aren't allowed to blindside them like that...

  2. Have you ever read Mano Singham's article "Death to the Syllabus"? I wish I had the noive.

    I like Zebee's idea of "Well, you didn't ask."

  3. I'm always afraid that if I load it up with too much detail (as in "you didn't tell us we couldn't sleep in class," which a friend actually heard from a student at one point), they'll think, "Hey, I didn't know that was even a possibility!" and try it just to see what will happen.

  4. Undine's comment reminds me of my favorite Rate Your Students rant ever. (I have kind of a love-hate relationship with RYS, and I always feel guilty for reading it at all, but I do like the Bitchy Bear.)

    Incidentally, I suspect I am the first person ever to Google "bitchy bear owls umbrella."

  5. Zeeb, I love the idea, but I bet tenure wouldn't protect me from the student evals.

    Victoria, OMG, that's brilliant! Thanks for telling me about Singham's article!

    Undine, It is amazing what students will come up with sometimes, isn't it?

    Fretful, That one's hilarious! Thanks for sharing it.

  6. Have you seen this?

    I like the idea of a rule that says "Do not staple a dead duck to your essay".

  7. A while back I separated my syllabus handout (the rules etc..) from the class schedule. I developed a standard syllabus quiz that hits the high points, students take it on their own with the syllabus in hand and then I don't have to be boring with all the rules etc..

    The class schedule is where the fun is -- and it includes course specific policies (on-line deadlines etc..), and a note to refer to the general syllabus handout for further information on course policies.

    It's working rather well -- I don't have too many bozo students..

  8. Do you have to give your students a paper copy of the syllabus? We got round the paper problem by putting each syllabus on line. If students want to download it they can, but a far smaller number do than we would print hard copies. Mind you, you still have to write them, don't you?

  9. Like IPF, I do an Online Policies and a separate course schedule which just includes the table of contents for the Online Policies (which is ETERNAL because I am totally that legalistic type of person---although a lot of it is also so that I don't have to be re-deciding things and wind up re-deciding them differently. E.g., it's as much about explaining to the students which rules *I* am following as telling them what to do).

    For whatever reason, the shift to Online Policies does seem to have cut down on the number of times I had to annoyedly copy and paste from the syllabus into an email or essay comment. Online also let me write the policies in a more user-friendly way--eg, the table of contents is pretty extensive so students can go straight to "Extensions and Late Papers" and can more easily skim for what they need when they need it, rather than pouring through 10pt text (which they clearly did not do). Also, I try take the space to mitigate the rules with some friendliness, which I'm less likely to do on paper. And it's very colorful.

    I feel like Zebee's idea would still work if the first assigment were graded pass/fail, or something.

  10. I love the Rate Your Students rant. That was wonderful.

    I think that using an online syllabus with a good Table of Contents might be what I turn to in the future. The school I've been teaching at requires us to not only include the goals of the school, but also the goals for the class, as well as goals for general education (in the comp classes). It's about three pages of goals that the students will never read. So by the time the stuff comes up that they need to know, they've already given up. Blerg.

  11. As several others have already noted, I've dispensed with policy statements on the actual course schedule. This is partially from interest (I'd rather have a useful document about the class) and partially financial since our department budget was savaged this past year.

    I can hand out a one-page double-sided course schedule with a full listing of assignments and readings instead of the ten-page manual they used to receive! Frankly, enough students were demonstrably not reading the long manual that I don't feel bad about cutting back on the paper that I hand-out and I can tell them that the policies were online from day one!

  12. The duck thing works less well than one would hope - although a really sarcastic student once stapled a photocopy of a duck to his essay.

    We recently went through a template mandate from On High. As far as I can tell, it just means there are now 2 more pages on the syllabus that students don't bother to read, and everyone's syllabus now has them, so students can not read it 5 times a semester.

    Oh, and thanks for the shoutout, Styley.