By Michelle May
It’s the first day of class. You get your syllabus and skim over it. The professor reads it to you, explaining some things but skipping over others. You’re not really paying attention, because it’s boring and you figure you can read it later if you need to. But that’s where you’re wrong.
…syllabi should be uniform and standardized….
Many syllabi are confusing and/or lack important information. I propose that syllabi should be uniform and standardized. Of course, there needs to be some room for variation - different classes have different needs - but there are some things that should be on every syllabus.
Every syllabus should have at least a rough schedule, a grading system, an attendance policy, and any other requirements needed to pass the course. It should have clear and pointed titles and subtitles, and it should be organized according to an established standard. It should be posted online as well as handed out as a paper document on the first day of class.
A syllabus needs to use technical writing. It should be professional and clear, so there is no confusion. It should be professional and clear, so there is no confusion. If there are any questions as to what something means, it can be difficult to remedy for both the teacher and the student. If, for example, a student thinks that “assignments due by 12 o’clock” means midnight, and the professor thinks it means noon, this is a problem. This example is a minor problem, of course, and could probably be easily cleared up, but if it happens frequently, it can be bothersome. If the syllabus had been written using technical writing, it wouldn’t have happened and everybody would be happy. Except for maybe the student, who still has to do the homework?
Let me give you a couple of examples. Matthew Sewell, English professor, has crafted a syllabus with subtitles “Assignments,” “Attendance,” “Grades,” “Mailboxes,” and “Textbooks” in a bold font. His instructions are clear and concise. He has a detailed, two-page Class Schedule. He has also attached MSU’s Academic Honesty policy. He has included his website address, and the syllabus is online as well. This is a good example of a complete and technical syllabus.
Terry Davis’ syllabus is very different. He, too, is an English professor, and his syllabus also has subtitles: “Premise,” “Procedure,” “Requirements,” “Grading,” and “Calendar.” But under his subtitles are paragraphs that say only vaguely what will go on in class. He says, “Talk. That’s what we do. We read with patience and enormous care outside class and
we talk inside.” This is in the “Procedure” section, and it is far from technical writing. His calendar is only dates with blank spaces next to them; they are to be filled out by students as the class progresses. This is an example of a syllabus that could benefit from a technical makeover.
If we could set a standard model for the college syllabus, there would be fewer worries, less confusion, and maybe even less sadness. I believe a world that includes technically written syllabi would be a better world than this.
Davis, Terry. ENGL 403/503: Selected Authors: Gardner and Irving, Spring 2006. Mankato (2006).
Sewell, Matthew. American Literature 1865 to 1965. Mankato (2006).