What is a Syllabus?

At the beginning of every college class, I hand out a syllabus. What is the purpose of this document? What is in it? How do I plan it? How do I design it? I thought it might be useful or interesting to some of my readers to go through my thought process on philosophy and design of the syllabus.

The syllabus serves many roles.

One could see the syllabus as a contract. Here is the work you will do, and if you adhere to these stipulations, you will be paid with the following grades. When things go wrong in a class, the syllabus can be called to serve this purpose. In a legal sense, when someone tells you to “get it in writing” the syllabus ends up serving this purpose in college classes.

The syllabus introduces the instructor. What kind of person are you? Will you be organized? Will you be easy to follow? Will you be strict or loose? Students ask these questions and look for answers in the syllabus, whether they realize it or not.

The syllabus also serves as an instruction booklet for the course. Most students begin with simple, logistical questions. How much reading will there be every week? How many exams are there? Are there regular homework assignments? What are the grading criteria? Students refer to it for due dates, for how to complete papers, for grading criteria, or even for how to ask questions that they are left with.

I tend to view my syllabus as being as clear as I can possibly be about the logistical details (dates, grading criteria, etc) and then nudge the students a little bit to do some bigger picture thinking about why they are in the class, how they will approach the class, and what they will get out of the class. Many students might have simple, instrumental responses to these questions (to fulfill a requirement, to get my desired grade with the least amount of work, to get a grade on the way to my diploma) but I want to urge them beyond these as early as I can. They are important considerations, but if they are the only ones, maintaining motivation can be nearly impossible for many students.

Now for some examples:
I am pretty pleased with my current syllabus for the General Psychology Class I am teaching this spring. I am teaching two sections of 30 students (in addition to another class of all freshmen in our FYEC program), which is large for Randolph-Macon. I was inspired by a comment by Dr. Melissa Bartlett at this post on syllabus bloat by Matt Reed (aka Dean Dad). Dr. Bartlett left a link for her syllabus, in which she separates the bloated, reference-book part of her syllabus from a quick one page guide to the logistics. I don’t like the part of syllabus bloat that just includes legalistic definitions of cheating or disabilities, but I do see many good reasons to justify my own “sylla-book.” Certainly not all students will read the whole thing, but the ones that do will get a good introduction to what to expect from the course, what to expect from me, and the kind of culture I hope that they experience more at Randolph-Macon. They will also be nudged to reflect a bit more about their learning.

I kind of love reading extreme examples of syllabi. Here is what W.H. Auden assigned when he taught a course at the University of Michigan in 1941-2.

Here is the fantastic historian (and Harvard professor) Jill Lepore’s instructions on how to write a paper for her classes. I love how it is conversational, but also useful advice. I try to emulate that tone in some of my instructions.

I would highly recommend perusing the new free, peer-reviewed, open-access journal called Syllabus. It is a great way to look at a bunch of syllabi that reflect a great amount of thought and expertise. It is also a way to get new ideas for assignments, or creative pedagogy. I recently reviewed a syllabus and was struck that yes, this is a kind of scholarship. I am not sure that it can be evaluated in the same way other kinds of scholarship can, but I felt richer for both engaging with such a well-designed course, but also with trying to decide how it might be improved. It is also a great reminder to me of the remarkable diversity in higher education. The current issue has a syllabus from a course called “African American male first year writing” as well as one called “Introduction to Applied Data Gathering and Analysis.”

This piece about syllabus bloat has an interesting discussion on whether a syllabus should be a map or a recipe. I like the metaphor, and I think it is good lens to look at the goals of your course. I tend to think that beginning students need recipes (just like beginning cooks) but advanced students are more capable of taking a map and exploring. Obviously, though, I think that there needs to be some exploring and some clear instructions in every course.

Here is someone who abandoned the syllabus, entrusting more and more of the organization of the course to the students. This sounds great to me, and I am glad it works for him, but I am not sure I am quite ready for this bold experiment myself. And I don’t think it fits with my teaching persona or philosophy. Which is totally fine. I still found this interesting.

I’d love to hear from my college prof readers on your own approach to syllabi (or even get a peek at some of them?). If any students are out there, I’d also love to hear from you. What do you want in a syllabi? How do you read them? Please share in the comments.

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in research, service, teaching and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to What is a Syllabus?

  1. Jessica says:

    I learned to follow my syllabi closely in college. When I did not, I paid. “Ohhhh, the term paper is worth *that* much of my grade? Oops… Guess I’d better get started!” College professors who put a lot of time and effort into their syllabi do both their students and themselves a favor. As a new teacher of ESL students in Asia, I can’t say I did a good job of closely following my syllabi. There were too many unknowns when I created them. But I was dealing with young students who, largely, didn’t care. College is completely different, and it is nice to see teachers like you who put a lot of thought and effort to what you do.

  2. Sanjay Srivastava says:

    I’m going to be referring back to this post as I revise my syllabus for my spring intro to psych class. Thanks for a dependably thought-provoking post, Cedar.

    David Foster Wallace’s syllabi are a fun and interesting read, and they very clearly represent his voice and persona. Slate had a writeup about them a couple years ago: http://www.slate.com/articles/life/roiphe/2011/11/david_foster_wallace_s_syllabus_is_there_any_better_.single.html

    The linked images to the primary sources are unfortunately hard to read, but here’s another syllabus of his I found on the web that’s a little bigger:

  3. Pingback: And you think this class is tough! Check out Auden’s! | whisper down the write alley

  4. Pingback: The Human Brain Project and Decoding Dreams News Roundup: April 2013 1st Edition | The Amazing World of Psychiatry: A Psychiatry Blog

  5. J. Zimmerman says:

    Replying as a student, clarity and detail are always appreciated in a syllabus. More importantly, though, I expect the professor to follow the syllabus or make it very clear if things have changed. (Your syllabus-in link above- is an excellent example of both clarity and detail. Great job! As Sanjay noted, it is easy to tell that you love teaching.)
    I will read a syllabus in the entirety before the course begins and refer to specific sections as needed throughout the semester.

  6. Pingback: Spiffing Up Your Syllabus « pleasureinlearning

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