It’s In The Syllabus

“What did we cover in class last week? What’s your late homework policy? When are your office hours? How will my grade be computed?” Jorge Chan’s PhD Comics strip—along with a thriving T-shirt market and Internet meme industry—reflect the frustration instructors experience when faced with a barrage of questions that can be answered with a single refrain: “It’s in the syllabus.”

The course syllabus is one of the central artifacts of contemporary American higher education. We submit them with job applications, they are referenced in evaluation and promotion decisions, and they make up the vast majority of documents in teaching materials exchanges.

It wasn’t always this way, but today, syllabus design is often viewed as the first and most important work a new instructor undertakes. Templates that can assist with this process are widely available: many institutions have their own lists of required sections, and general guides include Josh Boldt’s “Syllabus Design for Dummies” or the first chapter of James M. Lang’s On Course. 

In this post, I take a different approach. Creating a syllabus does not mean checking off a list of required elements. The syllabus is a genre of writing that requires us to reflect on the purpose of our teaching, our relationships with students, and effective means of communication. I outline here four considerations that, together, have influenced my approach to syllabus design.

The Syllabus as Terms of Service  

Syllabus bloat is a common concern. Today’s documents easily have double-digit page numbers, and Barbara Fister’s metaphor of the syllabus as terms of service (TOS) is apt. “The most striking thing about TOS,” Fister says, “is that they are full of rules—and very few people read them.” With pages of boilerplate about academic integrity, disability accommodations, late policies, and expectations for classroom behavior, the syllabus has become a contract between students and instructors.

To many commentators, this legalistic syllabus reflects a deterioration of higher education that is part of a broader trend of treating learning as consumption and students as customers. In a climate where grade disputes are taken to court, we are reminded that a comprehensive syllabus is easier to defend.

I don’t disagree with these writers’ concerns, but neither do I share their nostalgia for the one-page syllabus. Clearly articulated course policies are not only about catering to consumerization or preparing for legal defense; they can also make essential contributions to student learning.

The norms and expectations of university life that seem obvious to faculty can be confusing or mysterious to students. This is especially true for students who are the first in their families to attend college or those who did not attend high school in the United States. I have had students ask what words like prerequisite, matriculation, office hours, and syllabus actually mean, and it is definitely not always clear to students what the norms of etiquette for contacting a professor are or which forms of collaboration are encouraged and which are considered cheating. The unspoken assumption that everyone should know these things can exclude or limit opportunities for students who have not acquired the cultural capital needed to navigate systems of higher education. A well-crafted syllabus, while long, may help to demystify both the educational process and professional expectations. But while my syllabuses have grown in length over time, I still hope to move beyond the uninspiring aspects of a terms of service approach. Additional ways of thinking about the syllabus contribute to this effort.

The Syllabus as Manifesto  

For Adam Heidebrink-Bruno, the syllabus should be a manifesto that bridges the divide between students and teachers. It should be “passionate, affirming, and understanding,” detailing students’ rights and mitigating their potential fears.

I wouldn’t quite describe my syllabuses as manifestos, but this approach highlights an essential lesson: the syllabus is a reflection of the relationship we are working to form with students.

The syllabus tells students what we think about them. Do we expect our students to fail (and therefore expect that we will need a list of policies to explain or justify this failure)? Are students our adversaries, such that we must prepare for battle before we meet them? Are they our charges, who we expect to obey commands and contribute little themselves?

Even small changes in the language of a syllabus can shift the tone away from this antagonistic approach and have a significant impact on the development of rapport between students and instructors. For example, my first major syllabus revision was for an Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course I taught in 2011. Most of the students in the class were new to college, and nearly all were new to anthropology. As I revised the syllabus, I especially focused on 1) using more approachable, conversational language and 2) emphasizing strategies for success. I changed section headings to explain the content and help students navigate the document (e.g., “What will you get out of this class?” “What will you need?” “How will your grade be calculated?” “Where can you get more information or help?”). Rather than listing times for office hours, I listed times when students should “feel free to visit me.” I tried to shift away from telling students what they should not do and emphasize instead what they should do (e.g., “To get a good attendance grade, you should…”).

These changes were minor, but they reflected a deeper transition in my approach to teaching, as I increasingly considered not just what my students lacked (and what I could give them), but what they bring to the classroom and what we could achieve together.

The Graphic Syllabus

The document I shared above also reveals one of my first attempts to consider the visual appeal of a syllabus. In an effort to create a friendlier and more accessible document, I increased white space, used small icons to highlight important sections, and included an image from one of anthropology’s favorite cartoonists.

Just as the semester was beginning, the ProfHacker section of the Chronicle of Higher Education published several creative approaches to the syllabus, and by the next year, I had revised my introductory Cultural Anthropology and Biological Anthropology syllabuses again. I modeled the new designs most closely on the excellent examples shared by Tona Hangen and Susan Sheridan, using a template from Apple’s Pages program. (I have since used a variety of other Pages and Microsoft Word templates; see examples here.)

Students regularly comment on these redesigned documents; the layout, they say, makes it easy to find information and generates excitement for the course. As Julie Platt reminds us in her description of an infographic syllabus, “we live in a highly visual culture; visual design and visual rhetoric are important.” Paying attention to the visual aspects of syllabus design can both help students make more effective use of the syllabus and communicate an instructor’s pedagogical style.

(A note: The term graphic syllabus also sometimes refers to Linda Nilson’s technique for illustrating course structure and helping students understand the relationship among outcomes, assessments, and weekly activities. I have not yet used her approach, though it has interesting possibilities.)

The Co-Constructed Syllabus  

Finally, a syllabus need not be 100 percent complete before the start of the course. This past quarter, in my Anthropology of the United States class, I attempted to give students a say by allowing them to vote on the topics we would discuss throughout the course. The students were almost entirely anthropology majors, and most were about to graduate. I wanted to encourage them to apply an anthropological perspective to contemporary American issues, but I didn’t want to repeat topics they had encountered several times in previous classes (an issue students had raised in earlier course evaluations). At the same time, I hoped to maintain student motivation and participation even as senioritis set in. 

I selected materials for the first few weeks of the class and then presented students with ten potential topics we could explore in the rest of the course. In an online survey, I asked them to vote for five and to list any additional topics they would have liked to see on the survey. I used students’ input to finalize the rest of the syllabus, and the Additional Topics section formed the basis of a list of suggested monographs students could choose for a final book review project. Here is the final version of the syllabus.

Continuing to work on the syllabus while the course was in session was a challenge, and I often felt rushed as I planned lessons and worked to connect the various topics into a coherent argument. Judging from feedback on the course evaluations, however, students overwhelmingly appreciated having a chance to provide input. Although a couple of students stated that they preferred to have a complete syllabus at the beginning of the class so they would know what to expect, most said that this approach made the course more interactive and engaging, fostered student interest, and showed respect for student autonomy.

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In a previous Teaching Tools post, I mentioned that when I first started teaching, I primarily approached syllabus design as a type of literature review. A decade later, my syllabuses reflect fundamental changes not just in how I design a course, but in how I think about students and the work of teaching.