It’s In The Syllabus

Angela Jenks:

“What did we cover in class last week? What’s your late homework policy? When are your office hours? How will my grade be computed?” Jorge Chan’s PhD Comics strip—along with a thriving T-shirt market and Internet meme industry—reflect the frustration instructors experience when faced with a barrage of questions that can be answered with a single refrain: “It’s in the syllabus.”

The course syllabus is one of the central artifacts of contemporary American higher education. We submit them with job applications, they are referenced in evaluation and promotion decisions, and they make up the vast majority of documents in teaching materials exchanges.

It wasn’t always this way, but today, syllabus design is often viewed as the first and most important work a new instructor undertakes. Templates that can assist with this process are widely available: many institutions have their own lists of required sections, and general guides include Josh Boldt’s “Syllabus Design for Dummies” or the first chapter of James M. Lang’s On Course.

In this post, I take a different approach. Creating a syllabus does not mean checking off a list of required elements. The syllabus is a genre of writing that requires us to reflect on the purpose of our teaching, our relationships with students, and effective means of communication. I outline here four considerations that, together, have influenced my approach to syllabus design.