The Life Span of a Syllabus

The first day of class is one I look toward with both excitement and trepidation. There is nothing as exciting as meeting a classroom full of anxious new faces and students, but that can easily be quashed by the seemingly robotic presentation of the syllabus, only to know that by the end of the fifth week of class (if not before) you will be the angry cat in the classroom.

I’ve introduced more syllabi in the classroom than I care to admit, which also means I’ve written more than I care to admit. I’ve finally settled on a 7 page syllabus, but even that happy length still leads to questions that are clearly outlined on the syllabus. Length of the syllabus and the presence or absence of the course calendar seem to play no part in the life span of my syllabus. Alone, the document, whether printed and handed out to the students or just posted on the course website or CMS, carried a life span of about 5 weeks. For awhile, I thought the entire syllabus genre was slowly rolling into extinction, but I’ve since learned that what the syllabus genre needs, much like what the Internet thinks most of our lives needs, is a reminder system that spams our phone, tablet and computer constantly. Of course, we all know that won’t happen without us taking even more time out of our already busy teaching schedules to send targeted reminders to students about things they should know or at least know can be located in the syllabus. But there are a few ways to extend the life span of the syllabus.

The Meme Mail

The first day of class, as part of the syllabus discussion, I emphasize to my students that I do not respond to emails that ask questions clearly covered in the syllabus. I’ve done this for years, with fairly terrible results; my students often did not recognize my silence as indicative of this policy, and emailing the student to state the fact that the answer was in the syllabus seemed to lead only to the question being asked in class the next day. I’ve overcome this problem thanks to the popularity of the Dos Equis guy and the rise of meme generators. Now, I tell my students that I don’t answer emails that ask questions covered in the syllabus, but to make sure they understand my lack of a response, I’ll respond to their first two questions with a generic meme mail. They don’t take me seriously on the first day, but as soon as one of my students receive the meme mail, word spreads. Sometimes, the mail itself spreads around the classroom.

emailmemeIf I had to estimate, the meme mail has cut email from my students asking questions covered in the syllabus completely before midterms. The students who do email me a syllabus question more than twice know by their third email how long it takes me to respond to mails, so the silence at that point turns them back to the syllabus (or class the following day). The email takes no time for me, since I’ve set the image up in a specific signature for my email address. I can’t say the meme mail eliminates asking these questions in class, but it significantly cuts down on emails and in-class questions.

The CMS Syllabus

The CMS syllabus is not as clever as the meme mail nor as hip as the meme mail, but a peek into the number of times my students visit the folder shows the CMS syllabus gets more views than I get emails about syllabus questions, and the numbers climb after the first student gets a meme mail. (You can click the image below to enlarge the screenshot.)

Screen Shot 2015-08-20 at 8.35.11 AM

I keep my syllabus in a folder in the course CMS that contains a PDF of the syllabus I discuss on the first day and a second folder titled “Syllabus at a Glance.” In the folder, I  use several of syllabus builders to create a more easily scannable syllabus. I introduce students to this during my first day, and they tell me throughout the semester this is a big help to getting back to the information they need when they need it.

Syllabus Speed-Dating

The final approach I use to emphasizing the importance of the syllabus is to incorporate the syllabus into the introductions. My students learn very early in the semester how important it is that they know each other, rely on each other, and create a community within the classroom. I begin building the community on the first day, challenging students to walk away from class knowing their peers and telling them I expect that, as the semester moves forward they will be able to refer to individuals by name, rather than by identifying marks or clothing. Therefore, I feel that if I blend something I will stress every day in class (the community) with something that guides our every day of class (the syllabus) students will relate the two. Oddly, it works. The association developed in the syllabus speed dating not only pairs a fellow student with a random fact about themselves, but also with a specific component of the syllabus.

I ran across the idea for a syllabus speed-dating ice breaker in a Faculty Focus article several years ago. Just as the article describes, I create two lines of chairs facing each other, give students their syllabus, and give them 3 minutes to locate an answer to a syllabus question and learn one thing about each other. At the end of the 3 minutes, I poll the class for the correct answer and the one thing they learned about their peer. I incorporated the peer fact as part of the poll so that students don’t repeat the same fact to every peer.

Final Remarks

When I tell colleagues that I don’t lecture about the syllabus on the first day, they look at me with suspicion. But I don’t consider what I do on the first day as “lecturing” about the syllabus; I guide students through locating the important information. That guidance is the core of my pedagogy. The CMS syllabus furthers that guidance, giving students the tools to find what they need when they need it gives them the chance to stand on their own and find the answers they need, but it is the meme mail that I think most encourages them to walk without their safety net. These methods, for me, extend the life span of my syllabus to almost sixteen weeks. For some reason, my students still will not check the syllabus for the date and time of their final exam. What strategies for encouraging more reliance on the syllabus do you use with your students?

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