Syllabus Fantasies

March 8, 2013
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Even a syllabus can go viral nowadays. One did last week for a course on the topic of “Fate and the Individual in European Literature” taught in the 1940s at the University of Michigan by W.H. Auden. This wasn’t the first and surely won’t be the last time a famous person, usually a literary author, has had a syllabus find such attention. This Atlantic post collects examples by David Foster Wallace and others. When he was running for president in 2008, a syllabus from his law prof days accompanied a NYT article on Senator Obama’s University of Chicago years. A famous person’s syllabus might inspire a kind of edufantasy: what would it be like to be Zadie Smith’s student? A syllabus is a trace and a hint of an experience. As a recipe can stimulate our imagination of gustatory delights, a syllabus can make us wonder about the intellectual pleasures of a great class and teacher.

Another thing the Auden syllabus provoked was astonishment at the quantity of assigned reading, thousands of pages of classics ancient and modern. But who knows what the Michigan undergrads actually read that semester? Auden’s syllabus is merely a list of readings, without specific assignments. What intrigued me most wasn’t the edufantasy element but the occasion to compare the form of a syllabus of the 1940s with that of our own time. As someone whose job includes writing syllabi, I wondered what the changes in their form tell us.

Some changes are technological. The syllabus of today can be very long. One syllabus of a course taught in my department runs 5500 words, and I have heard of instructors giving syllabus quizzes as incentive to students to read them carefully all the way through. Auden’s was a single page. The tools mostly likely used for producing this kind of document in the ’40s were a typewriter and a mimeograph. Photocopiers would not appear in academic offices before the later 1960s, and computer word processors would not be standard before the 1980s. College instructors often gave syllabi, exams, and other documents needing to be printed to a secretary to type and run off, which would have required more planning ahead than we need today. We might be more likely to make and run off longer documents when it is so much easier to create, duplicate, and distribute them. Technology affords this, but I wonder if we necessarily benefit from the syllabus bloat that is in part a product of our ease of making and publishing documents.

Another change in the syllabus is toward a more legalistic format setting out policies and rewards and punishments that follow from adhering or failing to adhere to them. Auden’s syllabus takes the form of a list, which is consistent with the term’s etymology as a word meaning “table of contents.” Syllabus used to refer not just to documents listing course readings, but more generally to plans of study, in some ways overlapping with the term curriculum. But now a syllabus is considered a kind of contract, and this way of thinking has been promoted in education advice at least since the 1990s. The standard syllabus today contains far more legalistic content than it does bibliographic. It breaks down the course grade and specifies expectations for attendance and penalties for absence and late submissions. It tells you to check your email and to turn off your phone. My university expects a syllabus to state policies for such things as students missing class for a religious observance, receiving accommodation for a disability, and being suspected of academic misconduct. My employer also expects a syllabus to state learning goals, and depending on the class and the requirements it satisfies, these might need to to adhere to specific formulae. The syllabus today is a terms of service agreement, and it should not surprise us if our students skip over many of these boilerplate terms. Do you usually read a ToS or do you just click “agree”?

Some of the legalistic content of today’s syllabus is foisted upon us by university admins, to be sure. I don’t like listing objectives and goals. Can’t the purpose of any course in the humanities and social sciences be assumed to be as obvious as: read the books and articles on the syllabus and try to understand them? But some of this policy-heavy format also is a product of our everyday experiences in the contemporary culture of higher ed. The consumerist character of the university today demands a clear quid pro quo. Students and their families are assuming substantial debt to pay for their degrees, which are seen as essential credentials for the good life. In exchange for their compliance with our expectations, they receive credits toward their degrees.But as instructors, we fashion the syllabus not just to be a clear and binding formula for earning credits. We also use the syllabus to produce our fantasy image of an ideal student, and to hold this up as a standard next to the vast majority of undergrads who fail to live up to all of our expectations in their pursuit of a degree, if not an education. (Maybe Auden was also projecting his ideal student: one with the time and intellectual curiosity to read as much as him.) It sometimes seems that the point of writing a policy into the syllabus is to wave it in the face of the student who fails to follow the ToS. This makes our work petty and bureaucratic as much as enlightening and pedagogical.

So perhaps the biggest fantasy of the Auden (and DFW, Obama, Barry) syllabi isn’t the idea of learning at the feet of the great man or woman. It’s the idea of education unencumbered by the contractual logic of the consumerist college campus. It’s about school being an opportunity to explore exciting ideas rather than merely showing up at the proper place and time, following all of the instructor’s detailed directions, and resisting the urge to text in class.


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3 Responses to “ Syllabus Fantasies ”

  1. I. Nash on March 9, 2013 at 1:13 PM

    The legalistic nature of today’s syllabi is indeed a product of the consumerist college campus — but it also indicates a big shift in the students themselves. In Auden’s day, fewer people were admitted to universities, and in order to get there, those people had to have a good deal of mental discipline and a pretty strong work ethic. There’s no need to load a syllabus with rules that everyone already knows and takes for granted.

    But today, I’d estimate that a good 70% of my university students genuinely do not know how to discipline themselves to take responsibility for their own progress in the course. In other words; if we don’t spell it out for them, they don’t do it. When I don’t tell them the penalties for late work, a lot of them turn in late work. When I don’t explain and enforce rules about punctuality and attendance, many of them skip several classes or come in 20 minutes late. Then, when their grades suffer for that, they get angry and complain — because they were never TOLD they had to do otherwise.

    I won’t speculate here about the reasons for this. But because this state of affairs is common (especially in public universities), legalistic syllabi are the only way professors can protect themselves from needless aggravations and conflicts. It also protects students from being penalized for something they genuinely didn’t know was wrong.

    I would *love* to leave the legalistic, picayune, punitive-sounding stuff off my syllabi. But I’ve learned it’s not worth the misery that ensues. Of course, that misery still pops up sometimes — but far less than it does with no stated policies on syllabi. As institutions that serve the public, we are obligated to deal with the current-day attitudes and behaviors of the college-going public.

  2. Derek Kompare on March 11, 2013 at 5:58 PM

    Excellent analysis of the gap between Auden’s syllabus and our own today. My university may be private rather than public, but we are still required to have more or less the same sort of legalese as you listed. It’s had to grow a bit virtually every year.

    There is no escape from this “contractual logic” as you put it, because it’s replicated everywhere we turn in our culture. Even if we only click “agree,” we are supposed to be reassured that there are limits and obligations of the experience embedded in ToS or EULA. And with all that money and time on the line (and up and down the chain, from students up through university presidents), there is little space for the blissfully unaccountable contemplation that Auden offered up.

  3. Kristina Busse on March 11, 2013 at 6:47 PM

    My university has begun requiring us to use a specific format they have designed, so we don’t even have a choice in where to place what. And a central part are what I’d guess are legal pre-emptive defenses, including anticipating change of pace, disability policies, and how to address student complaints. It truly resembles more a legal contract than a teaching tool.

    Looking at your Auden comparison, though, I wonder whether administrative power increases the lower you go in university hierarchy. In the 40s universities were mostly populated by a certain type of student, whereas today the obvious exchange system of degree for money is central in all school, but especially in less acclaimed tertiary schools. (Are community colleges and for profit schools considered tertiary?) So that might bring about a legal dimension that assured the “contract” as it replaces the ‘gentlemen’s agreements” of old?