First of all, let me just say regarding the word syllabus that I once had a linguistics book that pointed out that the proper plural would not be "syllabi" but rather "syllabontes." I used to annoy all my fellow grad students by insisting on referring to them as "syllabontes."
I woke up the other morning to two different pieces on syllabi ... er ... syllabontes ... er, syllabuses. One is Michael Drout's tale of how he evolved from innovative syllabi to conservative canonical ones ... a tale that is almost exactly my own. I could simply cut & paste his post into my own blog, and it would fit perfectly. The other is about spelling things out in syllabi. Shari Wilson in Inside Higher Ed talks about her journey toward finding a syllabus that students don't un/willingly mis-read. I too made the same journey she made. Now I find I'm journeying back.
There is a certain type of student I call the "syllabus lawyer." Actually, many students have an inner syllabus lawyer that pops out when then need it, but a few move beyond invoking eye-rolling annoyance in me, and cause me to fantasize about a new volcano suddenly erupting under their feet. The syllabus lawyer sees the syllabus as a contract, not as a plan, and they seek loopholes in it. For example, Wilson discusses those students who claim not to understand that when, say, "Paper due" is written on the syllabus, it means that the paper is due ON THAT DAY, and claim that they misunderstood, thinking that they were to begin work on the paper that day ("due" being ambiguous and all). Oh, yes, I too have had those students.
See, here's the thing about the full-time syllabus lawyers, and those students who employ them as part of an over-all whining campaign: they lie. They understood perfectly. Their "misunderstanding" is willful, in the hopes that the professor will be lily-livered enough to back down. And, if you back down, they don't appreciate the break ... they push harder, don't respect you, and don't respect your class. I learned this the hard way. Try to close one loophole, and the students will find (or pretend to find) another. No, legalistic syllabi create more problems than they solve. Now I'm moving to syllabi that simply spell out my expectations. At the end of the day, the only legitimate question the students have is "what does the professor expect out of me?" All other questions are either off-shoots of that one, or are silly.
Let's consider an example. If a student says to you "It says here that the reading for today was Beowulf. I thought that meants I was supposed to begin reading it today," slap the student with the appropriate penalty. If the student is so dumb (unlikely) that she really can't understand so simple an instruction, you have offered her a lesson in Reading Syllabi 101. If she still doesn't understand the lesson, she's so dumb that she'll never graduate anyway.
If, on the other hand, she understood the syllabus (likely) but figured that if she faked misunderstanding you so that she could go to a frat party with her friends, when you slap her with the penalty, you've taught her an even more important lesson. In my experience, she won't resent the penalty (though she'll complain). In fact, she'll appreciate the penalty, work harder in the class, learn more, be happier, and recommend the class to her friends. I think I get more students coming on the recommendation of students who flunked my classes than on the recommendation of those who passed.
It comes down to this: Yes, the students were in high school just a few months earlier, but this is adult education. Treat them like the adults they are, and they'll act like it. Treat them like dumb kids, and they'll act like that.
In a final note on my own hypocrisy, some of you who have seen my syllabi might note that the syllabi, while indeed shrinking, and still long and legalistic. Unfortunately, rules coming down from the state capitol about what has to be on the syllabi of English education majors now accounts for MOST of my syllabus. Though my own material is less and less, material mandated by the state government is more and more. Perhaps some day I'll blog on the stupidity of THAT situation.