Is a syllabus a rigid contract or an organic conversation?

I have been part of seemingly countless curriculum committees over the past six years, and I have read hundreds of course syllabi. It seems there are two competing trends in academia when it comes to syllabi.

The first is that they are becoming increasingly long, filled with all sorts of rules, regulations, and deadlines. These I call “contractual” syllabi.

The second is a response to the rigidity of the first type, a syllabus that I call “organic.”

Contractual syllabi contain information about everything—what to read and when to read it, completion deadlines, due dates, the description of the course, assessment methods, expected class behaviors, etc. This document is a contract between teacher and student that both are obligated to honor in every detail. Not honoring the terms carries penalties.

A couple of university websites lay out what universities and colleges generally see as imperative in a complete syllabus. The University of Toronto lists things that should be included on syllabi (course name and number, instructor’s name and contact information, required readings, course work and deadlines, copyright information), things that might be included (teaching philosophy, course expectations, additional materials needed), and statements that can be included (on, on academic integrity, on the library etc.). Iowa State University’s Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching also provides the information an instructor should use in a “learning-centered syllabus.” Iowa State’s advice is similar to Toronto’s.

Instructors often add to the above categories depending on their class experiences. Recently, I saw a syllabus that even detailed how the students should email the instructor.

One wonders whether the increasingly contractual nature of syllabi has undermined the nature of teaching as conversation and tried to structure learning by eliminating its fundamental messiness. In fact, a key argument made against contractual syllabi is that the acquisition of knowledge is not methodical. We learn in different ways; learning is unstructured. The least important part of the learning process—the syllabus—has become a stranglehold on the very process it should be facilitating.

Along with the trend of longer syllabi is a new phenomenon: a quiz on the syllabus. This is usually held on the second day of class. Although the idea at first appears strange, one can see the reason behind it; it ensures that students have read the syllabus and understand the course policies and requirements. Still, one wonders about syllabi that require testing. In the past, it was assumed that it was the student’s responsibility to acquaint himself or herself with the syllabus and the fact that he or she chose to enroll and stay in a course meant acquiescence with the dictates of the syllabus. This assumption no longer seems to hold.

The test on a syllabus relieves professors of a dilemma.The syllabi are contractual in the sense that students have to abide by them or take the consequences. Yet professors remain teachers at heart; they feel compelled to make sure that students are not caught off-guard and that they have indeed read the syllabus, so they test students on a document which teaches nothing substantive.

Some faculty have started a second trend by seeking ways to promote greater freedom from the syllabus through “student-led learning.” This method allows student input in the content of a course, making learning participatory for students, and, one hopes, more productive. This second method is a reaction to the first, with faculty attempting to make classes more fluid, more student-driven, and less beholden to a rigid format demanded by the syllabus. This is what I call the organic syllabus.

As a graduate student, I took a class in which the professor told us each week what we had to read for the next week. It was a class where the discussions of one class period dictated the readings for the next—it was built in true organic fashion. While this was an eye-opening, wonderful learning experience, the small class size, and the fact that we were all graduate students made this method possible. This would hardly be possible in most undergraduate courses because undergraduate students do not generally come academically equipped for such a course.

So, which of these methods seems to be the better alternative? On one hand, the idea of teaching as conversation has been, and should be, central to the liberal arts. This is not to suggest that university classes should not include formal lectures at all. But crucial to the skills one should learn in college is the ability to take information and place it within a larger context. A conversation between teacher and student and among the students themselves is essential to learn this skill.

The increasingly contractual syllabus is a distinct detriment to such conversations. Too often, as a result of the detailed deadlines on syllabi, important conversations are forsaken in order to “stay on target.” Lecturing is a more expeditious means of reaching deadlines, while conversation as knowledge-gathering or knowledge-reaching is “messy” and time-consuming. With conversation, the class veers off topic, the students make statements which show misunderstanding or lack of knowledge, or the same points are repeated in various ways. Yet, this is exactly how learning takes place. Learning is not quick, nor can it be done on schedule. It is a messy process that is done by different people in different ways.

Moreover, all too often guidelines and deadlines become the focus of both instructors and students, eliminating the larger concept of education. As syllabi grow more and more contractual, learning to work independently dwindles. As we lay out each step of the process of writing papers, setting deadlines for every small goal, we make it impossible for students to take initiatives. In making things easier for students, we make it more difficult for them to enter a world where such steps are not laid out in detail. Outside the classroom, self-sufficiency and self-starting are valued, and a detailed syllabus can inhibit development of these skills.

Additionally, such a syllabus can reinforce the notion that education is no different from any other activity. Students end up focusing on the wrong things – grades, completion deadlines, quizzes, etc. and not on the substantive process of learning, understanding, analyzing, and internalizing material.

These reasons explain the origin of the organic syllabus. Yet students need a detailed syllabus more today than ever before. They come to college with lower skill levels, and they find it difficult to meet unspecified expectations. They need the structure and guidance that a detailed syllabus provides.

After looking at the pluses and minuses of both the contractual and organic methods, my proposed solution is to aim at some happy medium, a syllabus which is structured but not rigid.

I suggest that a syllabus should simply include the basics—professor’s name, email, office hours, names of required texts, the order of the readings, assessments, and the dates when tests will be held or papers are due. In order to promote organic learning, I usually build in a day or two into my syllabi where there are no expectations from the students. That way, if a topic takes more than its allotted amount of time to cover, I can still complete the syllabus.

Instead of filling the syllabus with discussions of email policies, disability notices, plagiarism information, etc., one can easily put these into separate documents and upload them onto the college Course Management System. The professor can discuss course policies in class but they do not need to test on them.

This small change shows students that education is central and that these policies are peripheral to the task of learning. It prevents students from thinking that education is about bargaining about policies and that classes are just another contract between teacher and student. Syllabi should promote true understanding, analysis, and learning—not wind up replacing them with quickly forgotten checklists.