Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Understanding Syllabi

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.


  1. Anonymous10:35 AM

    "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."

    Do they really have that much say-so over what is essentially an optional education?

    ...it's because of the funding from the State, isn't it.

  2. Well I am glad you realize that the majority of students that pay that close attention to syllabi are doing it for a reason. I have never really cared enough to lie, but then again I can't keep up with my syllabus past the first day of class.

  3. Cappy,

    They have total control over the English *education* majors, having nothing to do with funding. If we don't do what they demand, our students won't be certified to teach in the state of Alabama. And, since any given class is likely to have at least one education major, when Montgomery demands that all education major syllabi have the phrase "traditions of innovation" somewhere in it (an actual example) or else the class won't count toward the credit hours education majors need to be certified, it acts practically as a demand to change the syllabi for any class that could possibly have an education major enrolled. Oh, I suppose I could have two versions of the syllabus (one for education majors, and one for everyone else), but that is even MORE work.

    I would say, on average, we've been informed of mandated changes to our syllabi about once per semester -- some semesters not at all, some more than once.

  4. Anonymous8:33 AM

    I was intrigued (and a little horrified) by 'syllabontes', so I decided to do a bit of checking.

    Anyways - and I say now that I have never learned Greek and have only moderate Latin, I have seen it plauslibly explained that syllabi and syllabus come from Greek, not Latin and that, therefore, syllabi(or e+accent) is correct.

    In the words of someone who seems to know what they're on about: 'The correct Greek plural is actually syllabē συλλαβη, as labos is a 3rd declension neuter ending in -os, going like teichos.'

    And yes, I did want to pretend I knew Greek.

  5. Anonymous2:52 PM

    Cappy said:

    "...it's because of the funding from the State, isn't it."

    Reading this phrase, I feel it should be accompanied by some 'Duh Duhn DURRRGHNN!' music.

    In my country* (a phrase I've spent a lifetime wanting to say, and you can feel free to put whatever funny accent you want on my comments as you read them aloud in your head - go on, be creative!), you do an English degree, which is fully paid for by the state, which has no say on content.

    If you want to teach second level (12-18 year olds) then, you go and do a higher diploma in education - which is run in conjunction with the relevant govt. deparment and involves one learning to teach second level material, which is radically different from University material.

    Result: no state interference in syllabontes at undergrad or any other level.

    Obviously, a fairly simple analysis etc. - but a point worth making perhaps?

    * Ireland, begorrah.

  6. Anonymous9:29 AM

    "...when Montgomery demands that all education major syllabi have the phrase 'traditions of innovation' somewhere in it (an actual example) or else the class won't count toward the credit hours education majors need to be certified..."

    What -- do they think that catch-phrases are the key to a person learning to be a teacher? Who are these wackos in Montgomery, and who gave them control of this stuff?

    Oh yeah. *smacks self on head*

  7. I find it delightful and totally unsurprising that you'd correct people as to the correct plural of syllabus.

    I agree that those "syllabus lawyers" who use feigned dumbassity to try to pull one over on a professor are evil. But I don't think you can totally dismiss the "syllabus as contract" view. A professor can't just change his or her mind in the middle of the semester regarding the weight of assignments, say, not tell anyone, and then dismiss complaints as "syllabus lawyering."

  8. Would pasting in Drout's essay be plagiarism?