Attack of the Monster Syllabus

Written by: Jessica Landgraf

Primary Source:   Green & Write, January 19, 2017

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

By Jessica Landgraf

While the syllabus is an important component of a college course at any level, over the last decade they have morphed into new beasts, made up of copious amounts of class specific information supplemented with institutional policies, personal preference statements, and living document clauses leading to a product of grand proportions. It is no wonder that few professors, in my recent experience, print out copies for their students, preferring instead to provide a digital copy.

Current Requirements 

Last week at the start of my new classes, I took an interest in the particulars included in each syllabus. There was the typical course description, the professor’s name and contact information (including office hours), an outline of general topics to be covered, weekly readings, course assignments, exams, and grading scales. These are the typical things that come to mind when I imagine basic syllabus necessities. But what, policy-wise, are currently considered the bare essentials? Looking at various college and university policies on syllabi I compiled a sample list of components (This list was derived from syllabi policies at Michigan State University, University of Florida, Western Illinois University, Missouri State University, California State University):

  1. Instructor (office, telephone/email, office hours)
  2. Term, class times and locations
  3. Course goals/objectives/learning outcomes
  4. Required textbooks and/or materials
  5. Weekly course schedule (topics/assignments/readings)
  6. Descriptions of major assignments; Dates and times of exams
  7. Grading scale/Evaluation plan
  8. Attendance requirements/penalties

In addition to these general requirements, most institutions also had a list of statements that were required to be included on all syllabi:

  1. Statement outlining compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, explaining students’ rights to accommodations.
  2. Statement on academic honesty/integrity
  3. Statement of nondiscrimination
  4. Title IX statement on sex discrimination and contact information for reporting of incidents.
  5. Statement on cell phone policy
  6. Emergency response statement

Many colleges and universities provide suggested wording for the above statements. While not required for all colleges and universities, many of these statements appear on their lists of suggested items.

New Trends

Legal woes have forced the issue of thinking of the syllabus as a contract between the student and professor. This newfound way to hold both sides accountable, both professor and student, has its benefits and drawbacks. While it is easier for both parties to understand what constitutes fulfillment of course requirements, it has also opened up colleges and universities to lawsuits. Some universities have gone as far as outlining how to build a legally sound syllabus

With reported increases in diagnoses of anxiety and depression on campuses and tragic incidences of student suicides, faculty have also begun to provide information about on-campus mental health services and encourage students to approach them if issues arise in need of consideration. Northwestern University just passed a resolution encouraging the inclusion of mental health information in syllabi.

This is not the first time that students’ mental health has made headlines and precipitated changes in class procedures. Trigger warnings have made headlines over the past several years as those for and against them continue to debate.

Trends of the Future

While I feel that there is little room left to mandate controversial trends on syllabi, I do anticipate that faculty will become, and should become, more accustomed to including campus mental health resources on their syllabi. Mental health resources, in which campuses already invest, should be highlighted and de-stigmatized through normalizing their presence and use.

Future changes to syllabi policy, I predict, will be less about adding more information and more about language. As discussed in a previous post, attention devoted to diversity and inclusion in campus policies is on the rise. I have no doubt that this will soon be, and in some places already has been, reflected in language used in campus classrooms and on syllabi.

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