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Should the Syllabus Evolve During the Semester?

September 19, 2012, 6:08 pm

This piece of pedagogical advice is for all you faculty out there who are well into the semester and feel as though things are not going as well as they could be:

It’s OK to change your syllabus once the semester has begun. In fact, I recommend it. You can’t change everything, but you can change some things, and it might result in a better class.

Most people feel committed to the syllabus they handed out on the first day of class. I understand this. You worked hard on that syllabus and it represents your mastery of a field. It is a symbol of your intellectual authority and autonomy. Finally, even if you want to change it, you may not think that you are allowed to change it. Many faculty and students regard a syllabus as a contract between teacher and student that should not, and cannot, be changed.

But syllabus isn’t a contract: it’s a guide, and a set of appointments you keep every week.  It lays out the scope, logic and promise of the course, offers signposts in the form of topics, requires some readings and suggests other readings that the more ambitious student might wish to pursue. It articulates basic expectations for what students must do (how many papers? How long? Will problem sets be accepted late?), and it spells out as when and how work must be accomplished.

For precisely these reasons, if your syllabus is flawed you must change it. Teaching a syllabus that you have lost confidence in is like choosing to drive a car with a flat tire.

You cannot, of course, change everything. Although I do not believe in the contract theory of syllabi, there are certain kinds of changes that will be considered unfair by your students. Faculty are wise not to alter basic policies and expectations that might increase the difficulty or complexity of the course. For example, don’t add extra required readings; don’t suddenly decide not to read a book the students have already purchased; and don’t make papers due earlier than they appeared on the original syllabus. Unless you absolutely need to do this for disciplinary reasons, don’t alienate your students by adding pop quizzes.

The other thing you can’t change on a syllabus are items dictated by university policies and federal law: at my new uni, we must inform students about a variety of policies and services that are uniform across the curriculum whether students like them or not.  I simply cut and paste the language I am sent at the beginning of the semester into my  syllabus, shading it in grey as a way to signal “this is important but it isn’t about this particular course, it’s about how to conduct yourself and navigate your coursework.” This section includes information about disability accommodation, the writing center and the university attendance policy. I also now include an item commonly called “learning outcomes” which, I think, would be foolish to change mid-semester because they reflect the larger theory of the course.

For better or for worse, learning outcomes also reflect a promise to students that, if they do the work, they will leave the course more capable than they were when they entered it. Spelling out what will be learned is a big change in how I have always done business, one about which I was initially apprehensive because, I think, I learned many lessons about how education ought to be from my own rather narrowly elite education. For example, when I signed up for a course on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales at Yale (there, I said it) I expected that I would learn a lot about — Chaucer.  Now the same syllabus at many colleges might assert that the student should expect to leave the class with several “capacities:” for example, learning to read Middle English; rhythm, meter and scansion; and/or applying theory to the critical understanding of literary texts.

In two short semesters, I have found that learning outcomes are at least as valuable to me as they are to the students, since they give me a way to measure the effectiveness of what I am teaching in relation to the students who actually signed up for my course.

But what might you change in your own course, and why? Here are a few examples:

  • You have been too ambitious about what the course should cover. The vast majority of new faculty try to pack far too much into a course, regardless of where they teach. Experienced faculty teaching a new course, for which they may have learned a new field, can be subject to this fatal flaw as well. Lectures can be too dense, and the expectations for each class meeting too ambitious: you find yourself racing over the finish line every class period, with an eye on the clock. If you are noticing a certain fatigue in your students at this point in the semester, it might be because they are already overwhelmed by your zeal and they have already decided to stop trying to keep up. This syllabus alteration is an invisible one, and all it requires is that you loosen up and cede some control over the content of the class. Decide on the two or three things that students need to leave the room knowing, leaving more time for discussion so that you can fit additional material in around the questions that they bring to class.
  • You may have made some mistakes on your perfect syllabusI, for example, who have been teaching for over two decades, put the second two papers too close together in one of my courses. Rather than responding to every informational question from a student with an injunction that the answer is on the syllabus, use these intelligent young people to crowdsource the errors, inconsistencies or difficulties that the syllabus might actually contain. After entertaining a question about the writing assignments for my own class, I saw the student’s point and kicked the third paper down the road two weeks. This kind of syllabus alteration works because it is unlikely that any student will a) complain about being given more time for a paper; b) fail to appreciate it that the teacher acknowledged a mistake rather than making students pay for it so that s/he could appear infallible.
  • You have assigned too much reading. How will you know you have assigned too much reading? You will address bright, pedagogically sophisticated questions at your class and the same two people will raise their hands over and over. The other students will be leafing pseudo-thoughtfully through books and print-outs as if perhaps someone has left a winning lottery ticket in there, all the while studiously failing to meet your eye.This is where you have to pull yourself together and go through the course day by day, weeding out readings into a new category called “optional reading.” Then you have to hold an emergency  meeting with your students, tell them you have reduced the required reading and, henceforth you expect them to do it. Then in the next class give a quiz to show that you really mean it.
  • The class is developing in a way you did not expect. This is the most unusual, but perhaps the most interesting reason to reorganize a syllabus. The first time I saw someone do it was when I was team teaching and my co-teacher (I was tenured and she wasn’t, which was also kind of cool) announced that the course wasn’t going to work the way we had it structured for the students we had. She explained why, and it made sense: she then showed how we could take all the same materials and reorganize them into a better course. She was right, and we did it.  I won’t say that the students were completely unfazed, but we stayed alert for a couple of weeks until they got their traction back.  You probably can’t do this more than once in a semester without looking like a fruitcake, but you can do it once and get away with it.

Readers, have you ever changed a syllabus? Tell us why in the comments section. And if some of you are up for it — tell us why you would never change a syllabus.

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