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The Atlantic: The "Dead" Syllabus

Started by Wahoo Redux, August 21, 2023, 08:04:46 PM

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Wahoo Redux

The Atlantic: The Most Disrespected Document in Higher Education

QuoteLast week, the office of the provost at Washington University in St. Louis, where I teach, sent out a new syllabus template for faculty use. It's nine pages long and suggests that any detailed course content—a list of study topics, assigned readings, and weekly homework assignments—be sequestered at the very end. This is not unusual. I've seen and heard the same thing from colleagues all across the country, at schools big and small, public and private. At colleges and universities everywhere, the syllabus has become a terms-of-service document.

QuoteThen, 21st-century software upended how courses were run.....
Come, fill the Cup, and in the fire of Spring
Your Winter-garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little way
To flutter--and the Bird is on the Wing.

marshwiggle

Quote from: Wahoo Redux on August 21, 2023, 08:04:46 PMThe Atlantic: The Most Disrespected Document in Higher Education

QuoteLast week, the office of the provost at Washington University in St. Louis, where I teach, sent out a new syllabus template for faculty use. It's nine pages long and suggests that any detailed course content—a list of study topics, assigned readings, and weekly homework assignments—be sequestered at the very end. This is not unusual. I've seen and heard the same thing from colleagues all across the country, at schools big and small, public and private. At colleges and universities everywhere, the syllabus has become a terms-of-service document.


Kind of like how smartphones are advertised; the fact that they can be used to make phone calls is pretty much an afterthought now.
It takes so little to be above average.

mythbuster

I've never quite understood this. My syllabus run anywhere from 3-5 pages max. It does help that we have a college based web site with the boilerplate policies regarding academic integrity, student accommodations, athletes etc. I just state they need to see the web page.
    But, I've never been asked to detail every assignment in the syllabus up front. Never has an admin issue with this either..

Parasaurolophus

Quote from: mythbuster on August 22, 2023, 07:19:22 AMI've never quite understood this. My syllabus run anywhere from 3-5 pages max. It does help that we have a college based web site with the boilerplate policies regarding academic integrity, student accommodations, athletes etc. I just state they need to see the web page.
    But, I've never been asked to detail every assignment in the syllabus up front. Never has an admin issue with this either..

Mine are twelve. The schedule of readings takes up one page, the assessment breakdown 1/3 of another. Everything else is boilerplate.

They also all need approval from the department head every semester. How common is that? (It wasn't the case at the other two institutions where I've taught, but those were R1s.)
I know it's a genus.

apl68

Quote from: Parasaurolophus on August 22, 2023, 09:13:07 AM
Quote from: mythbuster on August 22, 2023, 07:19:22 AMI've never quite understood this. My syllabus run anywhere from 3-5 pages max. It does help that we have a college based web site with the boilerplate policies regarding academic integrity, student accommodations, athletes etc. I just state they need to see the web page.
    But, I've never been asked to detail every assignment in the syllabus up front. Never has an admin issue with this either..

Mine are twelve. The schedule of readings takes up one page, the assessment breakdown 1/3 of another. Everything else is boilerplate.

They also all need approval from the department head every semester. How common is that? (It wasn't the case at the other two institutions where I've taught, but those were R1s.)

Oh my goodness!  That's a terrible amount of boilerplate to be required to include.  Is it at least something that doesn't change too often from year to year, or do you have to keep re-writing it?
God gave Noah the rainbow sign
No more water, but the fire next time
When this world's all on fire
Hide me over, Rock of Ages, cleft for me

kaysixteen

What would happen if you ignored the admin memo regarding how syllabi should be constructed?

dismalist

Quote from: kaysixteen on August 22, 2023, 10:54:15 AMWhat would happen if you ignored the admin memo regarding how syllabi should be constructed?

My syllabi were also three pages absolute max. That included homework problems. No boilerplate of any kind, in spite of regular ex ante requests  by admins. But nothing ever happened ex post. Nobody ever came after me.

[My fall back position, which I never needed, was to use links to the boilerplate. That mighta' cost less than half a page.]
That's not even wrong!
--Wolfgang Pauli

Hegemony

What I've taken to doing is to put all the required "syllabus" statements in a document called "Course Policies," and the actual schedule in a separate document called "Schedule," which generally runs to only one page.

the_geneticist

We have a "syllabus template" that includes putting in some useful things (e.g. learning goals, required texts, etc.), some things that are sort-of useful but could be found elsewhere (e.g. prerequisites), and a really huge amount of boilerplate (academic dishonesty, Title IX, Disability services, etc. etc.).

We are also "strongly encouraged" to put the points/percentages/how your grade will be determined on the syllabus.  I'm honestly shocked that not everyone includes this.  I don't think you need to put in every single assignment, but something like "10% of your grade is from discussion assignments" seems more than reasonable to include. 

If the links weren't broken, I'd use those instead!

Parasaurolophus

Quote from: apl68 on August 22, 2023, 10:23:31 AMOh my goodness!  That's a terrible amount of boilerplate to be required to include.  Is it at least something that doesn't change too often from year to year, or do you have to keep re-writing it?

It mostly doesn't change, though when it does it can be frustratingly difficult to find the new info we're supposed to include.

Quote from: kaysixteen on August 22, 2023, 10:54:15 AMWhat would happen if you ignored the admin memo regarding how syllabi should be constructed?

I'm not sure. You get harassed by the admin and the head for a while, and then I dunno. I think they might actually cancel the class.

The deadlines for approval of syllabi are usually a day or two after the grading deadline for the previous semester, which is just wild--not least beause we may only just have been informed what we're teaching next semester.
I know it's a genus.

jerseyjay

When I have taught online for a community college, I have used THREE documents for the syllabus. One is called something like "school policies" and is usually standard for all courses and includes things like the counseling center, the veterans' center, the library, a master academic calendar, etc. The second is a two- to three-page course-specific syllabus that has contact information, book information, grade breakdown, and then a breakdown into weekly units. The last document is a schedule with specific dates for the unit. I started doing this because I did not want to have any actual dates on the syllabus because when I copied the syllabus from one semester to another, there'd always be some palimpsest-style trace of previous semesters', which was always confusing. And the school would always change its policies, so it was easier to just make a separate document.

I ended up taking about 5 online courses at this school. When I was an undergraduate student, I studiously read the entire syllabus, and as a professor, I always thought students who did not read the syllabus were lazy. However, I must admit, when faced with a 12- to 15 document, I gave up after a page or two, and just focused on the sections that I thought were important.

At other schools I have taught as an adjunct, I have had the syllabus returned to me (sometimes several times a semester) to add boilerplate stuff, to make sure the learning outcomes were correct (learning outcomes were one of the things I always skipped over as a student). At the school where I teach full-time, I keep my syllabus to a relatively short seven pages. I frontload all the stuff I think is important (description of the course, books, assignments, readings, etc.) and then have a section called "small print" that is 8 point font and has everything else. At one point, we were told we are not allowed to actually copy the syllabus and hand it out to students (it costs too much money on ink and paper) so it seems like an entirely cynical exercise--I pretend to write it and they pretend to read it.

kaysixteen

I do not recall a single undergrad syllabus I received as an 80s undergrad at Dear Alma Mater, that had any 'learning outcomes' section.   These outcomes are often either pollyannaish or just full of educese, and how many of you bother to write them (and what would happen if you did not)?

Hegemony

We're required to include the Learning Outcomes on every syllabus. If we did not, we'd be taken to task by the head of department, and maybe required to turn in the revised, learning-outcome-provided syllabus. I always include a humorous one on mine ("impress friends and family with your use of terms like 'causal ontology,'" etc). The fact that no official ever mentions this shows that they just glance at the syllabus instead of reading the Learning Outcomes all the way through.

I have to say that sometimes they're useful. When my offspring was taking some rather disorganized college classes, a look at the specified Learning Outcomes helped identify what he was supposed to be taking in, which was otherwise rather unclear.

Parasaurolophus

Quote from: kaysixteen on August 22, 2023, 05:30:03 PMI do not recall a single undergrad syllabus I received as an 80s undergrad at Dear Alma Mater, that had any 'learning outcomes' section.   These outcomes are often either pollyannaish or just full of educese, and how many of you bother to write them (and what would happen if you did not)?

Here, they're part of the boilerplate, so we don't write them--except when floating new courses. They're tied to the degree requirements and course designation (DinkyCore, etc.).
I know it's a genus.

jerseyjay

Regarding Student Learning Outcomes: at (at least) two schools I've taught as an adjunct, not having these meant that the syllabus was rejected by either the chair or somebody in the dean's office, and I was required to add these. That said, there has been no actual assessment of whether my classes met these SLOs.

At the school where I teach full-time, SLOs are part of the course proposal and can be parsed fairly closely. For general ed courses, adjuncts (and others) are expected to keep pretty close to them. In practice, however, we general hire somebody for (say) a US or European history survey course, and there is no focus on the SLOs beyond making sure they are on the syllabus. For upper-level courses, I usually make up something. It usually comes down to a combination of: being able to interpret historical sources; being able to explain historical narratives and causation; being able to analyze historical accounts; knowing what actually happened.

Some professors I know are really into SLOs, pulling out Bloom's taxonomy and pedagogical approaches, while others are much less enthusiastic.