Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
What does a syllabus do? And for (or to) whom?
Search syllabus on Twitter and you'll likely find #thelemonadesyllabus, a checklist of readings by African-American women, or #Ferguson Syllabus, #BlackLivesCDNSyllabus, #OrlandoSyllabus--all crowd-sourced reading lists for self-education on important topics.
The syllabuses handed out in classrooms on the first day also contain reading lists (in fact, lists of lecture topics were the first academic syllabuses), but those classroom syllabuses contain so much more--office hours, course descriptions, learning objectives, assignments, grade breakdowns, attendance policies and late paper policies and participation policies and plagiarism policies and cell phone policies and more policies.
Because of their situation--written by a teacher, read by students, in a classroom within an academic institution. And that makes all the difference.
In last week’s post, I sketched the surface of how syllabuses reflect and reveal some assumptions about who matters and who gets to say what matters. I focused mostly on the roles of the teacher and student within the class.
But the story is a lot more complicated than that. Who else writes and reads syllabuses, and why? And how does that show up in the documents? Big questions, all, so I’ll just share a few situations that show some complexities. Those of us who teach probably know this, but I wonder whether we pay enough attention.
Who gets to say what’s included in a syllabus? Not the students, as I pointed out last week, but also not just the teacher.
Syllabuses can become enmeshed in fights between faculty and administrators. Recently, one faculty member was suspended (and then retired) because he didn’t include adequate learning outcomes on his syllabus. His chair and later his dean said that the accrediting agency required learning outcomes to be on every syllabus, something that agency denied in the Inside Higher Ed article about it. The professor argued that the faculty code, not administrators’ requests, determines what goes in his syllabus.
That professor’s resistance made the news, but part-time faculty and adjunct instructors frequently have the content of their syllabuses dictated to them. Shelley Manis, in a comment on this blog, points out that many adjuncts couldn’t construct an alternative syllabus like the one I showed last week. Instead, they have to follow their program’s mandate.
In my own first years as a Graduate Teaching Assistant—and my first years as an administrator of a writing program—GTAs followed a “common syllabus,” one designed by a professor in Rhetoric and Composition for all teachers new to the program to follow. That dictated syllabus met with some resistance and some relief (I was relieved, as a brand new teacher; a bit resistant, as a brand new administrator). Either way, it worked to bring all teachers into line with a program and its values, goals, and methods. But these teachers are in less powerful positions than the professor. They didn't file lawsuits objecting to administrators dictating their syllabus content. (Please tell me, readers, if you know of cases.)
Even full-time professors often forget to notice how much of a syllabus comes from the institution’s or program’s expectations. The Faculty Rules at my own institution specify that
Information about the basis for evaluating students' performance and about the requirements that students must fulfill shall be made available to students, in print or electronic format by the 10th class day of the semester”
Does that regulation dictate what appears in my syllabus? Sure sounds like it, even without naming the genre. In fact, my department’s written expectations for faculty specify even the genre--that this information (and more) must be distributed in a syllabus.
So the teacher may dictate much to the student in a syllabus, but the institution dictates to the teacher as well.
Does dictating the syllabus content dictate what the syllabus does?
Not necessarily, not completely, and maybe not at all. The content is only a trace, a signal of what the syllabus does.
Like all genres (says the genre preacher), the syllabus is about more than what it contains. The syllabus is about what it does. And a syllabus (like most genres, says the genre preacher) does many things at once.
image Austin Kleon But wait, there's more! flickr
The syllabus does something else that is huge.
When I was the writing program administrator at my school, I heard complaints from students when they thought teachers didn’t follow the policies laid out in their syllabuses, especially grade complaints. The upper-level administrators who reviewed those cases consistently looked to the syllabus as what teachers were bound to follow. And I consistently advised teachers that, if they went against what they’d written on a syllabus, they were risking a grade complaint.
Does the syllabus make a contractual agreement? Looking at the content of syllabuses can't answer that question because it's a question about what syllabuses do, not what they say.
The wording at my own institution says yes and no. The university regulations carefully specify that it does not constitute a contract; the department rules says that it does.
In a recent column on “The Syllabus as a Contract,” Amber Comer describes the professor “forced to act as prosecutor, judge, and jury” in the syllabus, and she offers advice to teachers about how to protect against “clever” students who find loopholes in that syllabus contract. Not roles I want for myself or my great students.
But that image of "clever" students looking for loopholes suggests that students read the syllabus, and read it carefully. Some writers claim that, if the syllabus is a contract, it might be more like those Terms we click Agree to whenever a new software version installs—one few people read. Kali Slaymaker on College Raptor says that many students “disregard” the syllabus, and Kevin Gannon in a recent Chronicle column "The Absolute Worst Way to Start the Semester" (filled with good advice, including not to focus the first class day on the syllabus) advises teachers who give quizzes to give a quiz on the syllabus within the first week to ensure that students read it.
In my experience, students do read the syllabus in class that first day, even if many do go straight for the grading requirements. The syllabus does make a difference in how it shapes students toward the instructor’s and institution’s values and expectations. That's a big part of what a syllabus does.
But the syllabus also makes a difference in how it shapes instructors toward the institution’s values and expectations. That's also what a syllabus does. And I wonder if we clever teachers are reading our syllabuses carefully, looking not for loopholes but for the ways our institutional settings are shaping what we do in our classrooms. Students aren’t the only ones being shaped unawares. Teachers, too, should pay attention.
Next week I'll look for a lighter topic with less preaching. It is still summer, after all.
image by Ron Mader flickr
What does the syllabus say about us?
So it’s getting to be that time of the summer for those of us who teach in post-secondary schools. Classes will start within weeks, and syllabuses must be prepared. To delay my own prepping a little longer, allow me to do a bit of commenting on the syllabus--that first-day-of-classes document that teachers hand to students with course requirements and information about the semester.
I find the syllabus especially revealing for how genres reflect and shape their contexts. I use it as an example on the first day of classes when I’m teaching anything genre-based, from first-year writing classes to graduate seminars.
Take a look at my standard syllabus first page. I’m sure I learned this formatting and organization from my supervisors and other teachers when I was a newbie. Notice what comes first.
After the course title comes the instructor’s information—name, contact info, office hours. As my first-year students point out, that makes sense since they do need to know how to contact me. Genres do develop as they do for some good reasons. But notice the absence of students’ contact information. They need to contact each other, too, and I need to contact them. Of course, I can’t publish all their info for other students without their permission. But there’s not even a space on the syllabus for students to write in others’ names, much less their email addresses. Who are the classmates they’re going to spend a semester with? The syllabus makes no room for such information. All that matters is the instructor.
Such a simple thing, what’s included and what’s not in a genre. But such a powerful statement about what—or who—matters.
If what mattered most was the information most important to students, what might come next after the instructor’s contact info? I’d guess course requirements and grades—what students will need to do to get the grade they want. Seems perfectly reasonable to want to know such important information, and that’s information you can’t get anywhere other than the syllabus. But it doesn’t come next on most syllabuses I’ve seen. Grading and requirements are usually buried in the middle of the document. Instead, what often comes next is the course description, course outcomes, or learning objectives, depending on the institution. That big picture of what the course is about and will help students accomplish. That’s certainly important information, and many teachers, I imagine, will believe like me that it’s good to start the course off with the big picture of what we’re about and what we’re here for.
But as teachers are reading the course description, I imagine we’ve all seen students flipping to page two or three, searching for that info on requirements and grades. It’s not that they’re not interested in the big picture and what the course will do for them. Maybe it’s just that they already understood that. That’s why they enrolled in the course. They may even have read the course description online. But they haven’t been able to see anything about the details of the course requirements. Still, we make them search for that information, buried in the middle. What we think matters most comes first—who we are and what our course is about. The syllabus is not designed first of all to meet students’ needs, or surely that basic requirements and grade information would come first, so they can get that covered and be ready to hear about our lofty goals.
Such a simple thing, what comes first in a genre. But such a powerful statement about whose priorities matter.
image Delete by West Ham Trackside flickr
Again, there are some good reasons for starting with the course description and goals. We want to encourage students to pay attention to what they’re learning. Research tells us that it helps them learn to have the big picture first, setting a frame for everything they learn afterward. But notice that teachers are the ones who get to say what they should pay attention to.
Notice, too, that the genre can’t make them do what we want. Some students will still flip pages to find the grading info first. We can’t make them value lofty goals over pragmatic grades, but we can make it harder for them. And by putting those lofty goals first, we’re making a statement about what they should do and be.
After that first page, many syllabuses will be full of detailed instructions about what students should do to be “good” students—turn papers in on time, not arrive late to class, not use cell phones during class, be respectful of other students’ comments, maybe even use MLA headings and 1” margins. We want them to gain those lofty objectives, but they should also be obedient. So we use lots of commands (do this, don’t do that; be this, don’t be that) and very few requests or questions. The instructor is in charge, after all.
Such a simple thing, choosing the sentence type and tone in a genre. But such a powerful statement about the role of the writer and the reader.
Oh, there’s so much more to notice about the syllabus and how it reinforces the academic institution’s values. It puts not just the students but also the instructor into particular roles that are hard to resist. But I try to keep these blog posts under 750 words, and I’m already well over.
So I’ll just end by showing you a sample of a syllabus I’ve created to try to break some of those generic expectations. This one is from an undergraduate course introducing students to these rhetorical conceptions of genre, so the syllabus was very meta- about our course topic. You'll notice I still put the big course goals first, but at least I label them as "My Goals" and I leave room for their goals. And I start with the students' names (removed here, for students' privacy). We also negotiated the grade breakdown after that first class, but I'm still dictating a lot and still in charge.
If the world can stay sane for a week, I’ll return to comment more on this syllabus, and other classroom genres, next week.
What do you notice about syllabuses and the ways they shape teachers and students or reflect their institutions? Do your syllabuses differ in significant ways? I'd be glad to have more examples and material to work with as I continue to think through the syllabus, one of my favorite examples.