Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
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.