What Do Our Syllabi Really Say?

What Do Our Syllabi Really Say?

A lot changed for me last week.  Let me give you a concrete example:

The syllabus I distributed to students in spring term, 2017, said the following about plagiarism:

The Knox College community expects its members to demonstrate a high degree of ethical integrity in all their actions, including their academic work. Examples of academic dishonesty include plagiarism, giving or receiving unauthorized help, voluntarily assisting another student in cheating, and dishonestly obtaining an extension. If you have any questions about this, or if you are panicking about your ability to meet deadlines, please come and talk with me.

Please re-acquaint yourself with the Knox College Honor Code at https://www.knox.edu/Documents/PDFs/Academics/Honor-System.pdf

The syllabus I’ll be distributing this fall, on the other hand, now says this:

We commit ourselves to act with academic integrity this term – to be ethical in what we say and write, and to offer credit to others for thinking of ideas before us.  I believe that everyone in my course is fundamentally honest, and I will help you learn the conventions of academic integrity, such as citing sources correctly and being clear about where our own words begin and end.

If you’d like to read more about the college’s Honor Code – which was written by students just like you, and which students co-govern with faculty – you can find a copy at this link: https://www.knox.edu/Documents/PDFs/Academics/Honor-System.pdf

The first version? Authoritarian and distant. I use a lot of big words that I don’t define, communicate a lot of suspicion, and put all the responsibility for plagiarism on my students. The second version?  Collaborative and inclusive – I am bound by ethical considerations as much as my students – and I take responsibility for making sure everyone feels equipped to follow academic rules.

That’s what a week at the 2017 Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute will do for you.

If you’d asked me before last week what kind of a teacher I was, I would have told you that I was someone who valued community, one-on-one student relationships, and collective discovery of ideas.  I would probably have explained that I rarely lecture, and even when I do it’s for no longer than fifteen to twenty minutes.  I might have talked about the fact that my office door is always open – physically and metaphorically – to my students.  I would have felt pretty good about my pedagogical self.

Students in one of Cate's classes
Students in Museums, Monuments, and Memory

But the Institute asked me to consider whether my syllabus and assignments actually communicated collaboration, inclusion, transparency, and the relationship I wanted to build with my students.  I had to confess that no, they didn’t – in fact they communicated that I was remote from them, in an unassailable position of authority, and that as students they were constantly in danger of screwing up and losing my favor.


Let me give you another example.  Here’s what spring’s syllabus said about attendance and participation:

The outcome of this course relies on your informed, honest, and active involvement. You are allowed two unexcused absences during the course, but your attendance is expected at all other times. Excused absences include serious illness or family emergency, and cultural and religious holidays with notification. Though I hope no one experiences an illness or family emergency, if you do, please inform me as soon as possible—ideally, in advance of the class meeting. Make-up work may be assigned. If you have a religious or cultural holiday that conflicts with a class meeting or activity, notify me by Monday, March 27 so I can make sure that you have an excused absence for this day. If I do not hear from you by Monday, March 27 I will assume that you plan to attend all class sessions, and full attendance will be required.

When I read this at the Institute, I realized it was exceptionally cold.  I’ve never been a teacher who asks for the obituary from the local newspaper to prove that grandma had died, but in congratulating myself on that, I didn’t see all the other ways I was communicating detachment and doubt.

Here’s what I’m replacing it with this fall:

As co-collaborators in creating our learning space this term, we’ll be relying on each other’s informed, honest, and active involvement in class discussions. I realize different people participate in conversation in different ways, and that for some students, speaking in public is difficult. If you have any concerns about this, come and see me so that together we can work out the best way for you to participate in the class.

It’s important for us all to remember that different communities possess different culturally specific norms about how to best engage in a conversation, and for us to make room for this expression.

Remember to listen to one another, and to support your colleagues in their discovery of new ideas, their questions, and their articulation of thought. We’ll crowdsource a list of conversational guidelines during the first week of classes.

If you have to miss any of our classes know that we will miss your presence.  Please email me to let me know you’ll be absent so that I can support you and help you catch up afterwards.

At its core, my old syllabus suggested that students had to be told what to do or they’d mess it up. It communicated that they should passively receive my instruction, and it gave them no credit for their intelligence, integrity, or creativity.

I also passed a lot of responsibility to my students when it rightfully belonged with me.  This is my old language on trigger warnings:

If you have a clinical condition, such as PTSD or severe anxiety, that makes a trigger warning for certain issues helpful in navigating this class, please let me know as soon as possible (use email if this is too hard to do in person).  I will be happy to provide trigger warnings for such material.

I was so pleased with that statement before last week, thinking of it as absolutely progressive.  But on reconsideration, I realized that it insisted that students have a diagnosis before I’d listen to them, and that they should tell me what to include or I’d assume nothing was a problem. Here’s the new language:

I have tried to anticipate where you may need a trigger warning, but if you have concerns or want to check that a particular trigger has been taken into account, please let me know.  I am happy to provide that warning so that you can interact with class material safely, and on your own terms.

We are all likely to have strong emotional reactions to class material, particularly once we begin to talk about contact between Native people and Europeans/Americans.  We’ll spend some time at the beginning of term talking about the range of things we can do when we experience that kind of reaction.  I do not think of you as a brain in a jar but as a whole human being.  Please come have a conversation with me if you feel upset, confused, or angry.

I went to the DPL Institute thinking I would learn new digital tools and become equipped to teach my students more digital skills.  The Institute certainly helped on that front, but its greater gift was to push me to really think through the messages I send my students in everything I communicate to them – to look critically at the words on the page and the ideas informing those words.  I am beyond grateful to Chris Friend and Sean Michael Morris, the intrepid leaders of the Intro track, for the challenges they constantly placed before us, and to Chris and Jesse Stommel, who both gave me feedback on how to make my syllabus as welcoming and transparent as possible.  Thanks, too, to everyone in the Intro track – our collective conversations changed me profoundly, and I’m a better teacher for spending time with you.

If you’d like to see my completely reworked syllabus, you can check it out at http://learningincommon.org/syllabi/hist-181-intro-to-american-indian-history/

A photo of the participants in the intro track at DPL Institute, 2017
The Intro Track

5 thoughts on “What Do Our Syllabi Really Say?

  1. Maybe the Army will now hire her to rewrite the Field Manuals and the General Orders for Interior Guard duty.

    Then again, maybe they won’t.

  2. The difference in the syllabus examples here are not cold vs. warm it is student responsibility vs prof responsibility. The responsibility correctly rests with the student and by making these more ‘friendly’ the professorate lessens student agency. Taking responsibility from the student and moving it to the faculty is a fake kindness wrapped up in paternalism.

    1. What I’m advocating for is collaboration – a partnership between students and faculty. Not all students are equipped with a strong sense of their own agency right out of the gate, and I need to be responsive to those students as well as those who are comfortable advocating for themselves from the beginning.

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