The Substance of the Syllabus

I’ve been thinking about how I run a digital history practicum lately and considering how my experiences in this laboratory course can inform how I teach in more traditional courses. Recently I received a comment on a post that I cross-posted with my own blog, regarding my decisions to go without a syllabus in my digital history practicum.  The well-meaning commenter seemed appalled that I did not have a syllabus and went so far to insist that I “owed the students” a syllabus.

This got me thinking.

It’s not that I didn’t think about making a syllabus or couldn’t be bothered to do it for this class. Instead, I decided that the course was not a traditional course and the goals associated with the course divided evenly between learning by practice and a well-defined goal independent of the learning process.  The course had as a client the Chester Fritz Library and the success of the course dependent in part on the success in putting together a digital history collection and various online exhibits for the library. 

So at the start of the class, instead of circulating a syllabus, the class of four graduate students met and discussed the various expectations and deadlines for various parts of our project. As a result of this discussion, the class itself created an informal syllabus. Since then, we have mostly held to the various deadlines, although I am not convinced that we did as well with the various expectations that involved parties had for the class. 

I will admit that this course is a unique case, the students are almost all graduate students and advanced graduate students at that. We met informally and cultivated a flexible, collegial atmosphere rather than one informed by the traditional teacher – student dyad of authority. 

I had lunch last week with my fellow Teaching Thursday editor, Mick Beltz. Over some sandwiches we discussed the tendency toward contractual understandings of syllabi among students and the rise of the “student as customer” mentality.  We speculated about a  slippery slope where the student as customer arrives in our classroom expecting a precise definition of what it is that they will learn, how much better it will make them, and what the eventual value of this knowledge will be on future earnings and happiness. The quantitative and qualitative character of the imparted knowledge is girded about by a contractual syllabus and a series of rigid rubrics and standardized assessment methods that track the students’ progress through a series of environments arranged like a decentralized assembly line designed to produce a perfected person, a qualified employee, and a happy customer. While we all agree that some parts of this model are inevitable or even intrinsic in how higher education has been conceptualized in the US, the reality of this increasingly commodified view of the educational experience is depressing and limits our ability to adapt to a dynamic classroom environment, disrupt the student-teach dyad, and challenge authority.

In fact, as a result of our conversation, I began to wonder whether the syllabus does more to create the contractual and consumerist attitude by students toward their education than almost anything else. It immediately places the faculty member in the position of someone who owes the students something.  I always imagine the syllabus as a document that basically tells the students that I have something distinct and material to impart and sets their expectations of my performance. Like a contract with a local company, the student is put in the position of making sure that I deliver on the goods that my syllabus/contract promised. 

It wasn’t until my conversations with Mick, that I remembered my first experiment with unconventional syllabus writing. In my Latin 202 course last semester, I wrote a one page syllabus with some vague learning goals. (Something along the lines of “Learn Latin gooder” or “to engooden your knowledge of the Latin language.”)  I did this because I was not entirely confident with the level of preparation the students had or my own abilities to “engooden” their Latin.  Over the course of the class, we discussed various possible assignments re-arranged the value of various successful and failed assessment activities, and established together expectations of weekly work.  This was successful (mostly) because it created an environment where we could adapt the class continuously to our performance. I remember being encouraged by discovering that I am not the only one who approached my classes in this way.

For my digital history practicum, I anticipated that advanced graduate students might see the syllabus as redundant and perhaps condescending. The goals of the course came as much from our conversations with our “client” (the library) as from what the students wanted or what I expected them to learn. In other words, the syllabus became redundant in an environment where the students knew that they had to learn to complete a task.

This kind of environment, of course, simulates life. As the students in the class look ahead to writing their dissertations, they will likely discover that this process does not come with a syllabus. Moreover, when they write their first scholarly articles, there are no deadlines, learning goals, assessments, or rubrics that constrain what they do or document what they learn.  Even outside of the comfy confines of the academy, the students will inevitably discover that life does not offer syllabi. Success, happiness, and fulfillment, do not come by fulfilling the obligations set out on a sheet of paper.

Do syllabi do more harm than good?

Cross-posted to Teaching Thursday.


  1. I wonder if the hard-line “death to the syllabus” approach doesn’t make the same mistake that the “syllabus is necessary” approach does: both conflate the syllabus with the class. If we think of the class as “embarking on an exciting learning adventure” (that’s the awful, cringe-inducing [for me, anyway] phrase from the “Death to the Syllabus!” post you linked to) and the syllabus is a road map, then it doesn’t necessarily follow that the syllabus exhausts the content and course of the class, any more than taking a map with you on a road trip necessarily inhibits your ability to be spontaneous. I agree that the tendency is to make syllabi more and more like contracts, and I agree that this tendency does intellectual harm to students. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that we should throw out syllabi altogether (baby with the bathwater, etc.).


  2. Dimitri,

    Yep. You’re probably right. And just because life doesn’t have syllabi, it doesn’t follow that we don’t want syllabi for various parts of life (in fact, when we bought our house, we would have dearly loved a syllabus that told us when various pieces of paperwork are due!).

    At the same time, I think that death to the syllabus does problematize the syllabus as a document. A watered down syllabus in our contractual age is likely to appear as a failed syllabus. No syllabus is more a statement.

    More importantly (and maybe troublingly), the syllabus is manifestation of the break down of trust between students and faculty that the contractual nature of education has furthered. Students don’t trust us to help them learn, so they need (deserve!) a syllabus proving that what we are doing is in their best interest.

    Of course, doing away with a syllabus and pushing a student to trust our judgement in the learning process doesn’t necessarily create a more healthy environment… As the average dictator knows, there is real power to ambiguous rules backed up by brutal punishments…



  3. Here’s a thought from an ex-administrator. The “syllabus as contract” is most important in classes taught by less-than-stellar instructors. You’d be surprised/horrified at how arbitrary these folks can be. These are the folks who say things like: “remember your research papers are due the first class day after Thanksgiving. What’s that? Oh yeah, there’s a paper. Did I not tell you?” Or they announce on Monday that the cumulative midterm is on Wednesday. Or the most heinous I saw, they tell students two weeks before the end of the semester: “You have to do a group project; here is the list of groups.” [It’s the worst because so many students work; trying to match schedules on short notice is a nightmare].

    At [insert your institution here] 90% (maybe even 98%) of the instructors are not like this. But it only takes one or two of these folks to have a negative impact on the students education, attitude, GPA and, later in life, willingness to support State schools. Requiring a syllabus gives students recourse and a defense when such things happen. Students know that faculty talk to each other, so you may not hear about these situations too often. But administrators do hear about it, and sometimes from parents and attorneys (apparently even students know administrators are friendless). The “life is like that” approach is true, but it is less tenable each year as the cost of college goes higher and higher. If the State pays 70% of the cost of a students education, they can deal with it and be grateful for what they have. When the students pay over 50% of the cost of their education, I think they are going to think more like customers, and for some good reasons. Despite all their shortcomings, they excel at consuming in a way us old folks can only dream of.


  4. My undergraduate mentor hated syllabi, so his were simple one-page affairs that only had due dates for major assignments. I wish I could do that, but feel a bit pressured to provide a detailed syllabus for students, as it seems they expect it.

    One thing I put in the syllabus in terms of the course schedule to give me an out is “subject to change”, as I sometimes find myself needing to shift a date for an exam, which I then communicate to the students. The only issue with that is those students who only show up on exam days and do not check email well might suffer, but that is also their own problem.

    I am not sure what the solution is, as while it would be nice for the administration to side with its faculty solely, the problem is that the bad apples, who should not be teaching, would get away with bad pedagogy.


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