Throwing out the syllabus and starting over from scratch.

In 1999, I learned two different computer programs which have both changed my professional life for the better ever since. One was Microsoft Excel. Not being a statistics guy, I barely touch on its full capabilities. Nevertheless, it is absolutely perfect for calculating grades. Something that a long time ago once took me about twelve hours per semester now takes about thirty minutes – less if I don’t make at least one mistake writing the function.

The other program I learned back then was what they used to call Microsoft FrontPage. That was their web page program. While I have never become particularly good at making professional-looking web pages, I can say with certainty that I have not handed out a piece of paper in class during the entire twenty-first century. I have always posted my syllabus online, along with any handouts or assignment sheets that I’ve needed to use. This is not only good for the trees, it’s good for keeping your progress in class perfectly aligned with course calendar as you can update it as you go.

Don’t know what’s going to happen that day? Check my web page. Want to know whether you should take my class in the first place? Check my web page. The syllabi are all there. They don’t get scrubbed every semester.

The Components of a Syllabus:

While I know that I am hardly alone in putting my syllabi on the web now, I also know that the professoriate is far less than 100% web-enabled because I still get plenty of bureaucratic demands to send my syllabi along to some bureaucratic functionary as Word documents for review.  In Texas, faculty are required to post their syllabi online – sadly because right-wing state legislators wanted to know if professors are inculcating students with leftism. I actually think this is a good idea mandated for the wrong reason.

But that was almost eight years ago now. I think the far more interesting question now is, what exactly is a syllabus anyway?

Relying on this old post on this same subject, I can still find the way that the State of Texas decided to define the components of a syllabus:

(A) satisfies any standards adopted by the
(B) provides a brief description of each major
course requirement, including each major assignment and
(C) lists any required or recommended reading;
(D) provides a general description of the subject
matter of each lecture or discussion;

That’s not a bad list when you think about it. I do all of them already. If you don’t, I think you’re doing your students a disservice.  At the very least, they deserve to have some idea of what their semester is going to be like before the deadline to change classes arrives.  Heck, I think you and your students are both better served if they know this before they sign up for your class in the first place.  The more they know, the better.

Of course, the problem with this philosophy is that it can make for some really, really long syllabi.  The amount of language that I have to include in my syllabus as mandated by my institution has only grown the longer I’ve been here.  The longer I’ve taught, the more hypothetical problems I’ve actually experienced in class.  The more hypotheticals I’ve actually experienced, the more I want to include language in the syllabus to take care of those hypothetical problems.  This has proved particular true with entirely online classes, where written rules are particularly important since the written word is practically the sole means of communication between students and the professor.

What is the result of a very long syllabus?  Fewer students read it and everybody ends up frustrated.

If Your Syllabus Is the Size of a Small Book Why Isn’t It Organized Into Chapters?:

BlackBoard is the Devil and it was my only option here for most of my career.  That’s why my hatred of Learning Management Systems is well-earned.  I’ve softened somewhat while teaching online because I was able to build my course on free Canvas for educators.  However, as I get better with WordPress, my hope is to transition off it entirely.  In the meantime, I’m at least benefitting from a system that is organized far more instinctually than BlackBoard is.

I’ve come to think of it as a closed teaching web page of its own.  There’s a place for the syllabus.  There’s a place for assignments.  There’s room for your handouts.  You can even run online textbooks inside of it.  There’s actually room for a lot more than that, but that’s all I use.

The reason that I want to move all of this off into my own domain eventually is so that I can keep all of the constituents of a class in one place that I and I alone control.  This way I can keep vestiges of the class around for future classes to build upon – like links to past online assignments and blog posts from students that explain particular tools better than I can.  If I ever get into to mark primary sources (like most historians seem to use that tool), I can preserve earlier annotations on my media files too.  Perhaps most importantly, outside the LMS is far easier to integrate and utilize portions of the wider world wide web.

But this makes for an absolutely massive amount of words for students to read.  Even if not all of this material is in the syllabus, referring back to various pages has become difficulty for me because although I remember the rules of my own classes I can’t always remember which rule appears on which space.

One of the things I’ve doing lately is writing my syllabi in Scalar, the media publishing program out of USC.  It’s not just that it’s good for including media of all kinds.  It’s the structure of a Scalar into chapters and sub-pages.  Scalar is a good way to post and then relegate the contents of previous classes into a part of the syllabus where people can find it when they need it – or, more often, form to show it to them when they could use it – but not to have that content distract them from the main components of the class.

A Syllabus Built for the Web:

This may be the absolute least interesting thing you can possibly do with Scalar, but it suits my current needs.  But what about everybody’s syllabus needs for the future?

Suppose you want your online syllabus to actually take advantage of what the web can do rather than just be a paper document that happens to be posted online.  How would you change its organization?  How would you change its structure?  How would you prioritize the components of the syllabus so that students saw the parts they needed when they needed them, but could still find the parts that they didn’t need as much when and if they needed those?

This is really tentative, but I’m imagining a syllabus which has the (B) and (C) components of the Texas definition of a syllabus up at the very top.  The (A) parts – stuff like learning outcomes – would be hyperlinked from somewhere up there, but not taking up the prime real estate of this new kind of document.  Most of the top tier of this layered syllabus would be the calendar – (D) in the Texas definition –but the kind of language that describes the subjects of the assignments would be hyperlinked from the short description of each each individual class.

The idea would be for students to get what they needed when they actually needed it.  Don’t tell them what the paper question is until you actually start discussing the paper, unless they decided to click ahead.  Don’t describe what’ll be covered in the midterm on the main syllabus.  Describe it on the midterm page that they’ll probably only start reading when the midterm comes into view.

I might change my mind about this one, but why should students worry about exactly how their final grade is going to be computed until the end of the actual course?  Perhaps that information belongs not at the top (where I have it now), but at the very bottom of the main syllabus, after the calendar, or maybe on its own page hyperlinked from the final.  Prioritize the most important stuff.  Bury the rest – not so deep that it never gets discovered, but deep enough as to to make the idea of reading the syllabus at all seem a lot less onerous.

My idea here is to let the rules and regulations of the class unwind gradually as those rules and regulations actually apply.  They’ll always be available for the perusal of those students who are particularly worried about such things, but my redesign would be for the vast majority of students who want you to explain absolutely everything they need to know on the syllabus and then forget about it.  If nothing else, this would free up more time on the first day of class.

So how would you redesign your syllabi if you threw out its existing structure and built it up again from the very beginning?

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

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