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How to make a syllabus part 3: What to leave out

January 5, 2008, 12:45 pm

Since I’ve discussed what should go into a syllabus, it makes sense to say a few things about what to leave out. You could take my list of things to put into a syllabus in a “strict constructionist” kind of way, so that anything that’s not on that list shouldn’t go in. In general, my rule is that an item is to be included in the syllabus if and only if it is information that is relevant to the course that is not readily available elsewhere.

Here are some special cases of items that often show up in syllabi but really ought not to, or at least ought to be kept to a minimum and out of the way:

A lengthy discourse on the class, why it’s cool, and what it’s good for. I used to use my syllabi to write a mini-article on the course and how I conceive of it. If well-written, that sort of thing can be good for students to see. But is it syllabus material? I think not — mainly on the basis that students simply never read what I wrote. If they read anything at all, they would skip right to the stuff that is pertinent information — grading standards, attendance policies, etc. More often, they fell victim to the tailing-off effect I described that happens when the syllabus becomes bloated with too much stuff.

Save the discourse for a short lecture on the first day of class that gets repeated in some way each day. Your enthusiasm for the course comes across more effectively if lived out day-to-day in the classroom, rather than ensconced in a syllabus that doesn’t get read.

Words of encouragement. “You’ll be just fine in this class if you work hard and come to office hours“, and so on. Again, not that encouraging students is a bad thing, but the students who read through the syllabus carefully enough to see those words are precisely the ones who don’t need much encouraging. The students who will need to hear the message need to hear this message, not have it in a syllabus which they are instead instructed (over against all their academic issues) to go read. Encouragements are another thing that professors have to live out in the classroom. In the syllabus all they do is collect dust and contribute to the bloating effect.

Graphics. I have seen syllabi which are peppered with those cutesy MS Word clip art graphics. All those things do is distract. I subscribe to the Edward Tufte school when it comes to graphics, namely that graphical items need not to detract from the content, and if possible should enhance the content. My policy is to include maybe one graphic as a sort of course icon that appears at the very beginning of the syllabus, just to draw the reader’s attention. And that’s it, unless it’s some sort of visual that illustrates a piece of information in the syllabus.

Do you have anything that you like to include in a syllabus, or pet-peeve items you wish teachers would leave out?

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