Whatever happened to my syllabus?

(those of you who have ever heard “Diva’s Lament” from “Spamalot”…same tune, different lyrics)

Thirty-four years ago, I started college with a double major in history and math at Stephen F. Austin State University (Axe ’em Jacks!).  My first college class, 8:00 MWF, was Western Civilization I with Dr. John W. Dahmus.  It was in this class where I was introduced to the syllabus.  It consisted of one sheet of paper (mimeographed), and it listed the professor’s name, office number, office phone number, the required books for the course (one textbook, four additional books), the time and date of the class, and the exam dates (for both content exams and book exams).  If I would take the same course this semester, the syllabus would be far longer…and it would include a lot more information (the course content, however, probably would not have changed; it still covers from the dawn of time to 1500).  When Dr. Dahmus prepares his course syllabus now (yes, he is still teaching at SFA and is in his 41st year there), he also has to include the course description from the university catalog, the course calendar, the grading policy, the attendance policy, the History Program Learning Outcomes, Exemplary Educational Objectives and the Core Curriculum, the Academic Integrity Policy, Semester Grades Policy, and a statement for Students with Disabilities.  The only way that syllabus would fit on one sheet is if it’s on microfiche.

When I first taught American History since 1865 at Penn State-Berks in Spring 1986, the syllabus was two pages in length (one sheet, printed on both sides).  The front consisted of the basic policies and requirements for the class, and the back included the course calendar.  By the time I arrived at Mansfield University in August 1998, my course syllabi had expanded to 3-4 pages (depending on font and margins) as a result of teaching at Houston Community College, where they had a detailed syllabus checklist (and you would not get paid  if your course syllabus did not include everything required–certainly an incentive to prepare a more detailed syllabus).  This semester, when I discussed the syllabus for United States History to 1877, instead of presenting a two-page syllabus to the class, I showed them one eleven pages in length.  This new and “improved” syllabus includes pretty much everything I can possibly think of (with the possible exception of the kitchen sink).  No longer do I discuss course policies and requirements; I have to include course learning outcomes, program learning outcomes, General Education learning outcomes, an explanation of what a student needs to do to earn a particular grade (similar to a grading rubric), an explanation of how to access various online features of the course, the add/drop and withdrawal policy…you get the picture.  It’s a syllabus on steroids in many ways.  The syllabus is no longer viewed as a list of expectations and a calendar; it’s a contract between me and the student (and one that technically could serve as grounds for dismissal if I violate that contract).

The issue of “Whatever happened to my syllabus?” crossed my mind today as I was talking with my students in Teaching Secondary Social Studies about lesson plans.  When I taught 7th grade Texas history and 8th grade Spanish during the 1987-88 school year (the 2nd major in math lasted one semester, then I switched to a 2nd major in Spanish), as a new teacher I had to submit lesson plans to the principal for her approval one week in advance.  Those plans were simple:  subject, behavioral objectives (the student will be able to…) and activity.  That’s it.  Now…it’s not always something you can jot down in a lesson plan book, as the students need to include student learning outcomes, behavioral objectives, materials needed (by both the teacher and the students), NCSS (National Council for the Social Studies) standards, PDE (Pennsylvania Department of Education) standards, and activities that are student-centered instead of teacher-centered.  A good lesson plan, then, is several pages in length–not just a few lines in a mass-produced “Lesson Plan Book.” When they enter the classroom, they probably will be able to get by with one of the mass-produced lesson plan books (or a district-generated lesson plan document), but because lesson plans are one of the assessments for NCSS accreditation, the students have to provide more detail than I did when I prepared lesson plans for the secondary teaching methods class in Fall 1979.

Taking a break from discussing the mechanics of preparing a lesson plan (not exactly the most dynamic topic for a history class), I asked them about the syllabi for their classes–and whether they even look at the extra “stuff” we now include on syllabi to satisfy the wishes of external accrediting agencies.  I was not shocked to find out that they don’t understand why learning outcomes, etc. have to be included on the course syllabi.  As far as they are concerned, they just want to know what books they need, what assignments they will have to complete, and when those assignments are due.  In other words, the students really don’t care about the extra crap we have to put on the syllabus to satisfy the demonic desires of administrators and external accrediting agencies (there, I got it out of my system).

So, as we continue to kill trees with our syllabi on steroids (I post mine online so that students can access them easily, and, in the process, save a few trees), we find that increasingly higher education is being forced to adapt to a corporate model in which we have to justify our existence; apparently educating students isn’t enough any more.  I don’t object in principle to showing that my students are learning when I teach them (even if the lesson is something as simple as “you must follow directions or you will be penalized”).  I object to being told that I have to demonstrate to someone who has no clue about how I teach (and will never observe me in the classroom) that I know what I’m doing after 25 years in the classroom.  And, in a way, I object to being told what I have to include on my course syllabi (especially as they continue to grow in length), and yet the actual content I teach in my class hasn’t changed appreciably over 25 years (the delivery method, however, has changed).

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About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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4 Responses to Whatever happened to my syllabus?

  1. Larry Collins says:

    My high school syllabus was not 11 pages, but it was 4 pages. My 9th graders could care less to begin with about a syllabus. They just want to know a couple basic things and that is it.

  2. Karen says:

    And the one for the social studies methods class is 14 pages–and that doesn’t include the rubrics for the lesson plans.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Well, at least you make the effort to save some trees. As a recent student, I agree with those who only want to know what books they need, when assignments are due, when tests are scheduled, and, of course, the professors office hours.

    • Karen says:

      The other day, several students in my one section of U.S. history complained about the one prof who only had a one page syllabus, stating that they preferred syllabi that were about 8 pages long because it told them what they wanted to know–such as the prof’s expectations for written assignments, daily/weekly topics, etc. I don’t mind providing that sort of information, since it will help the students. But they don’t care about the student learning outcomes; only administrators and outside accrediting agencies do.

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