|“All too often we have been trained as professors to assume students are not capable of acting responsibly, that if we don’t exert control over them, then there’s just going to be mayhem.” – bell hooks 1994: 152|
Welcome to day one of the 2022 Syllabus Shake-Up Challenge! Last year, around this time I decided to do a short challenge geared towards highlighting the work and experiences of BIPOC in the field.
Since then, I haven’t had the time or energy to lead other challenges, but made it one of my resolutions for the blog to do at least two in 2022.
What is this challenge?
The Syllabus Shake-Up is a five day challenge meant to encourage instructors to find and try out new ways to increase engagement with their syllabi. They are also encouraged to start where they are. No huge overhauls or revisions required (unless that’s your jam).
Who is this challenge for?
More specifically, anyone who is really, truly serious about creating more inclusive and supportive classroom environments for our students.
Ideally, you will currently be teaching and have a syllabus that is currently in use. You can also do this challenge with a course that you will be teaching in the future, or as a reflective exercise for a course you have taught in the past.
Caveat: Although I’m sure there is lots of good scholarship on K-12 teaching in the areas that are covered in this challenge, most of the scholarship that I reference is geared towards higher education. Just a warning, K-12 teachers.
What will you get out of this challenge?
Ultimately, I hope that we can change our mindsets relating to two things:
- Student behavior. It seems that in the last few years, it has become increasingly clear through social media discourse that instructors’ relationships with students fall more on the side of confrontational and adversarial than warm and friendly. It is my hope that by thinking more intentionally about designing our syllabi, and our courses more broadly, our relationships with our students will improve. Often the problem is not with our students but with our own unrealistic expectations of them, and our lack of acknowledgement of our own roles in shaping their behavior.
- The role and purpose of the syllabus in our courses. Even when we put a lot of time and energy into crafting the perfect course policies, guidelines, and schedules for our syllabi, the document frequently is set aside and never returned to again. I think we often view the syllabus as more of something that is set in stone when it is completed, rather than a living document that should be constantly revisited and revised when necessary, especially in consultation with students.
Why focus on syllabus engagement?
Since the pandemic began, I’ve seen a lot of buzz about syllabi. In particular, many professors took (and are still taking) to social media to bemoan the fact that their students haven’t been reading the syllabus (among other things).
I’ve noticed that it’s always “it’s in the syllabus!” but never “how well have I explained to my students what the syllabus is for and how to use it.”
It’s always “my students are so lazy” and never “maybe there are significant barriers in place preventing my students from being able to engage with my syllabus,” which is particularly egregious considering that course syllabi are frequently compared to the likes of “terms and conditions” statements and reading the user’s manual to a calculator.
Have you ever wanted to read one of those?
What do all three of these things have in common? I mean, yeah, they’re boring. But they’re also inaccessible.
On the one hand, they are inaccessible because no one prioritizes actually teaching students what the purpose of a syllabus is or how to use one. In fact, there are several different ways in which syllabi function: as contracts, as permanent records, and as learning tools.
We assume that students just know these things, forgetting two major things.
First, students have different levels of experience with syllabi.
Perhaps the most obvious and yet underappreciated example of this is the difference between first year students and upperclassmen. It may be possible to expect some familiarity with how a syllabus works from upperclassmen, but certainly not from first year students.
Second, students will have different priorities for how they use syllabi.
In an ideal world, we all want our students to read our syllabi from cover to cover and really absorb all of the information therein. Hey, we worked really hard on our syllabi! Someone needs to appreciate them.
The reality, however, is that most students only refer to the syllabus for one or two reasons: how to get in contact with the instructor and/or checking dates for major assignments. We need to be more intentional about not just highlighting these elements in our syllabi but also including this information in the first place (and, no, not every syllabus includes this information; see for example Habanek 2005).
Syllabi and universal design
On the other hand, according to Janet Mizrahi, “An accessible syllabus is based on universal design to enable people of diverse skill sets to engage with it…[and] will contain four elements instead of the standard one – words: images, text, rhetoric, policy.”
How many of these elements do your syllabi typically contain?
My guess is that nine times out of ten a syllabus will include at most a single, featured image at the top, perhaps to catch students’ attention, but is otherwise text- and policy-heavy.
In the current, increasingly digital age that we are living in, many instructors have become more creative with making their syllabi more accessible for their students. At my own institution, Canvas modules were especially popular in the initial transition from in person to remote learning in 2020.
Instructors both outside of my department and at other institutions have designed well organized and more accessible websites for their courses.
At the end of each post for this challenge, I will include a prompt that you can work through relating to your own syllabus. This can be a syllabus that is currently in use this term, a syllabus that you are working on for a future course, or a syllabus that you have used in previous courses. How you choose to approach this challenge is up to you!
As you work through these prompts, feel free to share your thoughts with the community by commenting on this post, or on social media by tagging @ApothekeBlog or #SyllabusShakeUp!
|Question of the day: How accessible is your syllabus? What is the purpose of the syllabus for your course (syllabus as contract, permanent record, learning tool, or all of the above)?|
Comment below or share your thoughts on social media by tagging @ApothekeBlog or #SyllabusShakeUp!
The Syllabus Audit (Optional)
For those of you who’d like to go into more depth with your syllabus audit, here are a few more targeted questions to work through.
Habanek (2005) “An Examination of the Integrity of the Syllabus”
Reflective Pedagogy in the College Classroom – an asynchronous WCC workshop from summer 2021, facilitated by Drs. Amy Pistone and Ellen Lee