"The syllabus for any course constitutes a contract [emphasis added] between instructor and student formulated prior to the beginning of the course and lasting from the first class until the final grade is assigned." ...."New Faculty Survival Guide" CSU, Northridge, August 27, 2006.

Commentary of the Day - January 20, 2013.  The Bloated Syllabus.  Guest commentary by John Streamas.

I am now old enough to remember courses that had no syllabus.  One was a course in 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.  He ticked off the names of these novels and told us why we would read them.  Without a syllabus, the course flowed organically through the semester, lingering at German cabaret culture, passing quickly through interwar British fascist culture, but always moving.  As for a goal, we students might not have been able to say exactly as the semester was passing, but we would not have cared.  We were learning, and the professor offered illuminating contextualizations, 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 I first began teaching, as a graduate assistant in English, I 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.

How long is your syllabus?  Five pages?  Eight pages?  Ten?  One syllabus I saw was thirty-one pages long -- an entire reading assignment unto itself.  Most syllabi I see are between four and eight pages long, single-spaced in a respectfully readable twelve-point font.  Most of mine are five pages, but a few run a page or two longer and, happily, one was only three pages long.  The longest sections of most syllabi are usually the course description, the list of policies, the schedule of assignments, and the schedule divided by the relative grade-weight of each assignment.  This last item may appear as a simple chart or table, which of course takes up more space than a mere litany at the end of a long sentence at the end of a long paragraph.

In recent years, new sections have become obligatory at many, if nor most, 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."  Faculty are provided models of "learning outcomes" statements, but the models are more often lengthy charts than mere declarative sentences.  Columns measure the semester by weeks or by clusters of weeks, and rows name levels of achievement.  In the first three-week unit of a course in modern American literature, for example, a student might achieve mastery over foundational themes and writers, or perhaps familiarity with a few canonical texts but no ability to relate them to schools or themes, or perhaps only a minimal ability to summarize a few of the period’s major works.  The ultimate goal is of course realized in the final cell of the chart: complete mastery of the material, which, because it has been nicely named in a chart, is now quantified, so that both student and teacher may be reduced to mere quantities -- just look at that student's place on the chart, and look at that teacher's ability to move a class toward that heavenly last cell.  As if we teachers needed any more reminder of this quantifiability, the "learning outcomes" section is the longest of the compulsory sections of the model syllabus.

All of these newly compulsory sections are legalistic, 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.  I wish I could say that the "enhanced" legalistic syllabus is so terribly long because teachers just love to show off their passion for their material.  But the sad fact is, despite all those teachers who love to add epigraphs to their syllabi's first pages, those dreary and difficult quotes by Foucault or Kristeva or Heidegger, still the newer, longer syllabus is the (literal) product of administrators' legalistic and quantifying agendas.            

Now, old idealists and cynics may say that length should not matter in a syllabus.  Who cares if a syllabus is three pages long or thirty pages?  I argue that a syllabus can be a map or a recipe.  A map allows you to see where you are at the start of your semester's journey, where you want to be at the end, and various ways of getting from start to finish.  A recipe is a very specific set of instructions, from which there must be no deviation if you aim to create a perfect finished product.  The recipe-syllabus is product-oriented and linear.  The map-syllabus is open-ended and . . . well, not exactly circular, but surely not linear.  In the map-syllabus you can learn from the journey even if you fail quite to reach your goal.  I am not insisting on a trendy difference between product and process but rather on a difference between the quantifiability inherent in destinations (goal orientations) and the surprise possible in journeys (discovery orientations).  The recipe-syllabus is necessarily long, and it satisfies the legalistic agenda of the corporate university.  The map-syllabus is short or long, and it satisfies the amorphous dream of real learning.  Against the goal-driven tug of those compulsory sections, I still aim for the map.  It may not be the ideal syllabus—in my view, and surely in the view of my old history professor, the ideal is no syllabus at all -- but it offers our best hope against syllabus bloat.       

 © 2013, John Streamas.
John Streamas is an Associate Professor in the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at Washington State University in Pullman, WA.

The Irascible Professor comments: Professor Streamas' article hits on what was one of the IP's pet peeves while he was an active faculty member -- the ever growing course syllabus.  When the IP first began teaching syllabi were recommended by university policy but not required, though many individual departments did have requirements for formal syllabi.  Not long thereafter a university-wide requirement for written syllabi was established.  The syllabi for introductory physics courses were easy to construct, since we used a textbook chosen by the department, and we were expected to cover the topics outlined in the catalog course description.  In addition to the reading assignments for each week of the course, they also included the nominal dates of the exams along with the material that students were responsible for on each exam.  To account for the expected variations in pace, I always would add a disclaimer that the dates on the syllabus were approximate.  These were, as John might say, purely linear syllabi for purely linear courses.

As time went on the length of the syllabi grew owing to the administrative demands Professor Streamas outlines in his article.  Something else much more sinister also began to take place.  Students and administrators began to regard the syllabus as a legal contract.  Both groups became caught up in the notion that a course was a product to be consumed by the student, and the syllabus was the "warranty" that told the student what he or she could expect from the product.  Little mention was made of the reality that teaching and learning is a partnership between teacher and student, and that failure was possible if either party failed to live up to their obligations.

Professor Streamas is quite circumspect in his description of the relationship between administrative demands and the length of present-day syllabi.  The IP will be decidedly less circumspect and come right out and say that syllabus bloat is the direct result of administrative bloat on college and university campuses.  At one time colleges and universities had a relatively small coterie of academic administrators.  This has grown into a veritable cadre of Vice Presidents, Associate Vice Presidents, and Assistant Vice Presidents along with various and sundry Deans and Directors.  Each of these people strives to justify their existence along with their outsized salaries.  One way to do this is to capture space in the course syllabus.  An academic administrator whose bailiwick commands a place on the syllabus has arrived!  His or her area of purview has become not only important, but indispensible!


The Irascible Professor invites your  .

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