The Warm, Fuzzy, Disposable Syllabus

ARKive video - Barn swallows congregating in reed beds prior to migration

Barn swallows congregating in reed beds prior to migration. Stunning.

Standing freshly-packed on my kitchen counter and next to the basement door are rows of canned pear sauce, tomato sauce and salsa. Outside it is oddly quiet–the barn swallows have  abandoned the barn and are already heading south. The barn feels empty; that combined with the four or so baby-swallow corpses decomposing on the floor reminds me that Fall, and with it, Halloween, are not too far away. Pumpkins are growing in the yard. The spaghetti squash on the fence has ripened to a soft yellow, the zucchini plants seem almost finished production, and the butternut squash is making its transition from green to peach. This morning I woke to a spider crawling across my chest.

Having moved to the country just this past spring, I’m still learning to tell time in new ways. My calendar tells me it’s the end of August. My garden tells me it’s time to harvest. The swarm of fruit flies over the baskets of cherry tomatoes in the kitchen tells me it’s time to can. And I think the spiders are trying to tell me that it’s time to stop being a sissy. (They are terrifying).

But my gut and my day-planner are telling me: HURRY! There are things to do! They are almost here!

September is only one sleep away.

Students will soon overwhelm us.

Reviewing Your Syllabus

This means that for many instructors, it’s time to take a final look at course syllabi. Or perhaps it means writing the thing in the first place. In any case, now is the time to take your syllabi seriously.

Syllabi are usually understood to have multiple purposes: they establish course objectives, expectations & evaluation standards; they provide a schedule of readings; and, they clearly state university policy regarding things like plagiarism. For these reasons, syllabi have both a good and bad reputation. They are both upheld as sacrosanct contractual documents between students and instructors and maligned as bureaucratic pretense.

But syllabi also play an important role in setting the tone at the beginning of a course.  Janet F. Carlson and Jeanne M. Slattery point out that the type of tone a syllabus establishes can make it a powerful motivational tool:

“Students usually receive the course syllabus at the first class meeting. Both the syllabus and discussion of the syllabus and course help set the tone for the class (Appleby 1999; Littlefield 1999a; Office of Teaching Effectiveness and Faculty Development 1999). In introducing the syllabus, we must counter ingrained beliefs ‘that [students] are powerless to affect what happens to them; that hard work will not pay off; that success is due to luck, and failure is due to circumstances beyond their control’ (Walvoord and Anderson 1998, 16).” (n. page)

This is certainly the tone most instructors would like to set in the first week of a class. We would like to communicate a sense of excitement about and student ownership of the learning process. But how do we do that, exactly? And what does a dryly-worded syllabus have to do with excitement and ownership?

Well, not necessarily a lot. Instructors like to think their syllabi engender ownership, responsibility and accountability. Syllabi do, after all, clearly communicate due dates, options, and expectations. But the miscommunication that happens somewhere between an instructor’s word processing software and a student scanning a syllabus is not usually a result of its content. It’s a result of its tone.

Not surprisingly, the tone of your syllabus can affect the tone of your class. Carlson and Slattery explain:

“Syllabi differ widely in the tone they adopt: warm and friendly, formal, condescending, or confrontational. Warm syllabi explain expectations in a clear and friendly fashion, encourage and motivate students, and anticipate positive student outcomes, rather than merely attempting to prevent problems. They are associated with positive student outcomes. Littlefield (1999a) reported that people reading a syllabus as though they were students remembered the information on warm syllabi better than that on less student-friendly syllabi. Presumably this is because students see themselves as active participants rather than passive recipients in the learning process when reading warm syllabi and believe that their behavior will impact the course and their grades. Students who read less friendly syllabi may believe that their professor does not expect them to be successful, which can create a self-fulfilling prophecy. When formal statements imbue a sense of mistrust, it follows that student retention at the university will be negatively impacted (Collins 1997; Tinto 1993).” (n. page)

Carlson and Slattery present a debatable position. It’s one I firmly agree with. Why not give it a try? Review your syllabus for language that indicates aggression, distance or blame, and then rephrase. Or, review your syllabus for exclusive (and exclusionary) jargon and syntax. When we scholars talk and write about our field, it can be difficult to communicate in anything other than the scholarly language academic journals have trained us in. For someone without that training, that language can seem cold, intimidating, or mystifying. Give it a go.  Simplify sentence structure. Edit long sentences. Avoid jargon. You might even try asking someone outside of the university world to read both versions once you’re done. Test the results, and find out if tone can make a difference in the effectiveness of your syllabi.

The Next Step

Whether your syllabus is a warm and fuzzy–or not–try not to get too attached.

In the most recent issue of Modern Language Studies, Karen M. Cardozo makes some interesting connections between the unstable, under-funded and under-appreciated work of sessional faculty and the important role they might have to play in pushing university teaching & learning in a new direction. Cardozo argues against what she calls “tenurecentrism,” which she defines as the “prevailing discourse [in academia] that presumes a single structure for the professoriate and thus obscures both current realities and possibilities of doing things differently” (65). Cardozo highlights that, today, over three-quarters of faculty members are non-tenured in the U.S.; this leads her to the inevitable conclusion that “the U.S. professoriate in the aggregate is already a post-tenure system” (57). MacLeans reports similar numbers in Canada:

“A 2010 Statistics Canada survey of full-time teaching staff in universities shows that there were 20,685 tenured professors in 2009, down from 26,487 in 1999. Meanwhile, over the same period the number of sessional staff rose from 2,865 to 3,135. Estimates from the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), a 65,000-strong academic staff union, say that between 40 and 60 per cent of undergraduate teaching is done by sessional lecturers who often cobble together a living earning between $5,000 and $7,000 for a four-month course, sometimes travelling between two or three universities in one term. The joke in academic circles is they’re ‘roads scholars.'” (January 17, 2011)

As universities increasingly rely on sessional and teaching-stream faculty to woman their lecture podiums–Cardozo points out that what she calls “the contingent sector” is comprised predominantly of women, not men (57)–it seems an increasingly idiotic enterprise to focus exclusively on faculty as harbingers of change and critical pedagogies in higher education as a whole, not because tenured faculty aren’t capable or willing to critically engage with teaching, but simply because their numbers and research commitments limit their access to students.

What Cardozo sells as the critical contribution of sessional faculty to the future of g higher education is their (necessary, and while she does not phrase it this way, coerced) commitment to contingency–to instability, adaptation, and improvisation. According to Cardozo, the fact that sessional faculty often find it difficult to imagine in any precise way what their professional future might look like from one term to the next situates them firmly in the present. They develop a skill set that allows them to adjust and adapt to changing conditions as they happen, rather than as these conditions and events are predicted to unfold. In short, sessional faculty come to value the present in a particular way; they value the people who inhabit it, and the social, political and historical conditions that give it shape.

I’m not convinced. I bet you’re not, either. What if contingency doesn’t connect us (i.e., the “contingent sector”–and I’m adding TAs and grad students to the mix here) to the present and its people, but instead trains us to keep a fearful eye constantly fixed on the future? What if I can’t appreciate the present for all my anxieties about next term’s pay? What if teaching without proper resources, community support and sufficient pay discourages sessional faculty to such a point that teaching becomes even less of a priority, and becomes something one does to get by? It is undeniable that the offloading of education onto lesser-paid workers who are set firmly outside the inner sanctum of tenure benefits, department community, and even a broader research community strips teaching of tangible incentives, for both tenured and sessional faculty. We cannot fully partake in Cardozo’s enthusiasm for contingency. I suspect that not even Cardozo can.

But her article is brilliant, all the same. At least I think it is. Cardozo is asking that teachers become more connected to their present students, and to the conditions in which they learn and live. She asks us to throw confidence out the window, or at least the type of confidence that leads teachers in higher ed to ignore opportunities to re-evaluate teaching commitments and plans. Instructors–sessional faculty, professors, and TAs–might consider adopting a flexible commitment to their syllabi. We might consider changing assignments, course content and even evaluation procedures as the class and the conditions in which it unfolds demands. We might throw that carefully-crafted document right out the window, or, at the very least, grab a red pen or hit Ctrl-X mid-way through the semester.

Works Cited

Cardozo, Karen M. “Contemplating Contingency: Toward a Post-Tenure Politics.” Modern Language Studies 42.1 (Summer 2012): 54-77. Print.

Carlson, Janet F. and Jeanne M. Slattery. “Preparing an effective syllabus: current best practices.” College Teaching 3.4 (Fall 2005): 159-?. Online.

Findlay, Stephanie. “Whatever Happened to Tenure?” MacLeans On Campus17 January 2011. Online.

Further Reading

Bosquet, Marc. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York: New York UP, 2008. Print.

Cardozo, Karen M. “At the Museum of Natural Theory: The Experiential Syllabus (Or, What Happens When Students Act Like Professors).” Pedagogy 3:6 (2006): 405-433. Print.

—. “Demystifying the Dissertation.” Profession 2006 Ed. Rosemary G. Feal. New York: MLA, 2006. Print.

Centre for Leadership & Learning, McMaster University. New Faculty Handbook: 2010-2011. Online.