How long is your syllabus?

14 07 2010

While I was planning out the new laptop language in my survey syllabus yesterday, it suddenly struck me how long that particular document has gotten. Indeed, all my syllabi are starting to read more like legal contracts than classroom documents. This raised the question in my mind: Is this a good thing? I’m of two minds.

On the “Yes, it is a good thing” side:

Providing detail in your syllabus is the sign of a well-planned course. Indeed, I remember reading a senior seminar syllabus recently and I was just shocked by how short it was. It offered students almost no hint of what they’d be doing for three-hour stretches each week, and since I believe in transparency for the professor’s and the students’ sake I think that’s awful.

A long syllabus is also a sign of experience. If you’re like me, you tend to add clauses to your syllabus in order to cover something that happened to you in the past. For example, it was about two years ago that I noticed the first survey students with one earbud of their iPod in their ear while I was talking. I hadn’t even imagined anyone doing that before, so I felt the need to put it in my syllabus. If it’s not in your syllabus, your higher-ups probably won’t back you up if you try to enforce your own rules.

On the “No, it is not a good thing” side:

If it’s not in your syllabus, your higher-ups probably won’t back you up if you try to enforce your own rules. Has it really come to that? Does everything boil down to whether somebody is going to get sued? That’s a sad statement on society if true. More importantly, the longer your syllabus is, the less likely it will be that a student will read it all. Have syllabi just become another exercise in CYA?

I always thought a syllabus was supposed to be a “living document,” meaning you can change it at will. If it’s a living document, why does it have to be so long in the first place? Perhaps a long syllabus makes you inflexible.

Your thoughts?



2 responses

15 07 2010

Good post. My syllabi have gotten progressively longer. I even shrunk the font to 10-point, and every class syllabus is at least 4-5 pages.

I don’t think you have to think defensively about this. My experience is that detailed syllabi are better for everyone, but they’re best most of all for me. If a student has a beef, it’s very helpful to point to the syllabus and say, “As it says here quite clearly, . . .” My students are all volunteers–no one absolutely HAS to take a particular class with me as the instructor. There are myriad other classes and other instructors who can help them fulfill their requirements. So, if a student enrolls in my classes, they get what they get, but they also get plenty of fair warning on my syllabi.

Hope you’re having a good summer down there!

25 08 2011
“It’s in the syllabus.” « More or Less Bunk

[…] that they probably ought to go back and read the thing a little closer. I understand that syllabi are getting kind of long these days, but the books they have to read in history class are even longer. Even the short […]

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