Your Syllabus

Yes, it’s that time of year again: time to revisit your syllabi. My last post before the start of the Fall semester is all about asking your syllabus some hard questions. In it, I discuss how you might productively reflect on your syllabus by considering its tone, the message it sends to students about you, your course, and your field, and what its Accessibility Statement says about your approach to accessibility, equity, and teaching & learning.

Last year ’round this time, I wrote a post called The Warm, Fuzzy, Disposable Syllabus. In it, I urged instructors to revisit their syllabi and the relationship it suggests between instructor and learner. I especially wanted to encourage instructors to reconsider the tone of their syllabi: could a touch of warmth, even excitement, change how your students engage with your syllabus, and, by extension, the course it seeks to describe?

Generally speaking, syllabi are dry, legalistic documents. They are often described by instructors as an implied learner contract. And perhaps they are, in a way. But if you see your syllabus exclusively as disciplinary tool, or even as a flat, toneless document communicating standards, then you are losing out on an opportunity to engage your students. And on the very first day of classes, at that.

Approaching the Syllabus

Here’s what I wish instructors would avoid when crafting their syllabi:

In the beginning of the spring term of 2012, Mary Bart wrote a piece for Faculty Focus, in which she frames the syllabus as a strategy “for maintaining appropriate discipline without alienating students or compromising the course.” She writes:

Before crafting your syllabus, you’ll first want to familiarize yourself with your institution’s student code of conduct. Then, Jenkins recommends asking yourself a few questions:

  • How do I expect students to behave?
  • What will or won’t I tolerate?
  • What compromises or “concessions to reality” am I willing to make?

Yes, instructors should familiarize themselves with their institutions’ codes of conduct. But should this be the mind-frame in which you approach writing your syllabus? Absolutely not. “What will or won’t I tolerate”?! A fine question to ask yourself, I’m sure, but why not ask, instead, “How would I like to see students engaging with one another in my classroom? How would I like to see them engaging with course material? What would I like to see them getting from these interactions, and how can I best encourage them to reach that end?”

You may end up with similar answers whether you use questions like Bart’s as prompts when writing your syllabus, or questions like mine. But, at the very least, I guarantee that the tone of your syllabi will be radically different.

Reflecting on Tone

MaryEllen Weimer, who writes the Teaching Professor Blog at Faculty Focus (which is great great great great), also urges instructors to consider the tone of their syllabi. Here are some the questions she suggests as prompts for reflection of your syllabus:

Does your syllabus convey the excitement, intrigue and wonder that’s inherently a part of the content you teach?

Does your syllabus indicate that all the decisions about the course have been made? Or does it leave some options up to students or identify some areas where they might have a hand in deciding some of the details associated with the course?

Have you ever asked students for feedback on your syllabus?

That last question sparked a small explosion in my brain, which is sad, isn’t it? Before reading this, I had never before considered asking students for their responses to a document that I had thought of as laying the groundwork for how they related to me, and the course: how they perceived me, how they approached my tutorials, and the positions it made imaginable, or unimaginable, viable, or unviable, for them to occupy in the classroom. Sad, but there it is. Something to remedy next year; hopefully readers can take this on too, and perhaps share their experiences on Dry-Erase with student feedback on their syllabi? Eh? Eh??

Accessibility & Universal Design

A professor in my department recently shared an invaluable resource–a primer, really–on one particular, and incredibly important, part of your syllabus: the Accessibility Statement. You can find it here, and I really encourage you to click through. This resource includes sample accessibilty statements, and analyzes the importance of the statement and its position in your syllabus, its tone, and its title. But, because it’s a long-ish document, and because I know it’s panic time–4 days before the start of the Fall semester! gah!–I’ll quote a small portion of it here.

The authors of the resource, Tara Wood and Shannon Madden, begin by emphasizing the importance and impact of accessibility statements:

“Students with disabilities, especially those whose needs may not be met under the minimum legal guidelines for accommodations, can glean a lot from the accommodation statement in the syllabus about how the instructor approaches disability; this statement reveals the teacher’s ethos as well as her attitude toward issues of access.”

And here are only a few of the ways Wood and Madden suggest instructors can maximize the positive impact of the access statement:

1. “Create your own disability statement( even if it’s in addition to an official required statement at your home institution). This type of personalization allows you to position yourself rhetorically as an instructor interested in creating an inclusive atmosphere and one who is willing to work with students on an individualized basis to maximize their accessibility to your class.”

2. “Consider the location of the statement on your syllabus. As Amy Vidali (2011) argued in a response essay on classroom syllabi, titled “Embodying/Disabling Plagiarism”, a section on plagiarism and a section on disability accommodations generally appears “somewhere past the first page,” and their inclusion late in the syllabus represents them both as “mere policy matters” (p. 260). Representing them as policy, Vidali argued, “downplays the complex morality issues involved in plagiarism…as well as the challenges and benefits of teaching a diversity of bodies” (pp. 260-61).”

Finally, Wood and Madden suggest approaching disability and accessibility from the perspective of Universal Design. “Many writers and researchers are dedicated to viewing accommodation as a pedagogical issue rather than as a legal obligation,” they write, and point to the principles of Universal Design for Learning as a means to move the accessibility statement in your syllabus away from legal formality and towards one instantiation of a robust, thoughtful approach to accessibility.

Are you familiar with Universal Design? Wood and Madden define it as a set of principles “which [hold] that teachers should design classrooms and materials so that the curriculum is accessible to the widest possible range of persons.” I find this definition helpful, from an online space called “The Faculty Room” at the University of Washington:

“Often [a] design is created for the “average” user. In contrast universal design, according to the Center for Universal Design, ‘is the design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.’ Universal design is an approach to the design of products and environments, including instruction, that takes into consideration the variety of abilities, disabilities, racial/ethnic backgrounds, reading abilities, ages, and other characteristics of the student body.”

Resources, Reflection, Research

Mary Bart recommends that you re-visit your institution’s code of conduct when approaching your syllabus. I enthusiastically encourage you to instead make an appointment with your institution’s accessibility services office, or perhaps with a committee, office or department that is dedicated to educating students and faculty about accessibility and equity. Try to access those resources that will help you implement an approach to accessibility in your classrooms that is not punitive, purely legalistic, or impersonal. If you work at McMaster, make an appointment with the people at Human Rights and Equity Services; they are fantastic. And why not revisit your syllabi this week, ask it some questions? Eh? “Hey there, syllabus, you sound kind of like a jerk. What’s all that about?” Don’t have the time this semester to tweak your syllabus? Consider taking some time to read a little on the subject as this semester unfolds in preparation for the next.

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6 thoughts on “Your Syllabus

  1. It seems to me that the “syllabus” is almost an inherently legal/legalistic sort of document. In the past, I’ve tried to balance all of the policy and course information specifics in the syllabus with warm and substantive explanations about the purpose and processes of the course, along the lines you’re advocating. For me, this made the syllabus a lot longer but didn’t wash out the legal/technical tone.

    So what I’ve been doing lately is paring it down the actual syllabus just to the essential and required policy information, rendering it a sort of secondary document for the course (which sort of puts another take on “disposable”). Then I’ve been creating alternative documents in other genres to accomplish the primary work of meaningfully explaining the course to students. For example, for several courses I regularly teach, I’ve written 10-15 page essays to the students about the course, which explain my philosophy about the course as well as explain the how and why about how the course will operate. Then I assign this essay early in the semester as one of the course readings, connected to a short writing assignment and to an in-class discussion. I’ve been happy with the results.


    Paul T. Corrigan
    Teaching & Learning in Higher Ed.

    • An interesting route–separating the syllabus from a more intensive course objectives document. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone trying this before! Very creative. I imagine, too, that the pared-down syllabus must be a lot easier for students to read. (I remember finding multi-page syllabi in my undergrad incredibly difficult to follow. Even finding something as simple as a deadline can seem daunting in a document like that).

  2. I did just what you suggest last year and to great effect! It was both surprising and fun to see students actually start reading my syllabus and while doing so nudge their neighbor, crack a smile, and say “did you see this?” — and in a genuine, not a snarky, way. When the additional text engages and invites, it’s well worth it. It really does set the tone for the class.

    Great post!

    • Great to hear your efforts have been met with smiles and success! Have you considered posting one of your syllabi on your blog as a sample/example? I’d love to see it!

  3. Pingback: First Day Jitters, Redux | survivingtillsunday

  4. Pingback: Accommodation Anecdote | survivingtillsunday

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