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The Problem With Required Syllabus Language

It’s August, which of course for all of us teachers, we’re dusting off our syllabi and getting excited about some new teaching technique that we can’t wait to try and abandon when it turns out to be entirely unrealistic for our excessive teaching loads[1]. I recently read an excellent syllabus that balanced clever on-topic graphical design elements, concise language, and meaningful choices for students (you can read this syllabus here). It actually got me excited about syllabus design! It is, however, still very recognizable as a traditional syllabus, and that may not be a bad thing.

Pie chart of grade distribution from a syllabus.
An example of a graphic for explaining grade distribution from one of the author’s previous syllabi.

I’ve long been enamored of infographic syllabi. They’re so pretty! They’re concise, they avoid blocks of text, they’re modern and sleek. They’re also a bit of a pain to make (infographics, even with some nice templates available, are not easy to make), and the fact is I’ve never actually achieved making an infographic syllabus, although I have been incorporating more graphical elements into my syllabi, such as pie charts to illustrate grade distributions. Since I’ve been using more online elements for my classes, I’ve been incorporating more web design in my syllabi, including hyperlinks for easy navigation. I’m pretty pleased with these small, incremental changes, even if they never live up to my dreams of a fully multimodal syllabus that students might actually read.

One of the barriers I’ve had with graphical or interactive syllabi designs is boilerplate required language, something that we who teach required core courses are more likely to struggle with, but all of us do have institutional restrictions on our syllabi designs. These awkward paragraphs—often a diversity statement or (heaven forbid) an active shooter situation statement—are probably there to cover the legal bases, like all that language you agree to but never read in End User Agreements. They’re there to create consistent policies within departments and institutions, and they have some other important roles. They may be written by committee, and grandfathered in semester to semester. There are parts of my syllabi that I’m not sure I even remember how they got in there or who required it, I admit; they stay in because they seem necessary.

Screenshot of a button to continue in a terms of service document.
Ok, but how can you agree to what you haven’t read?
Screenshot by the author.
Oh, and did you try to click on the continue button? We’re all trained like lab mice!

However, the accumulative effect of all these bland legal sounding blocks of text is that instead of the genre of the syllabus striking our students with the urgency of “this is your helpline when you need it,” they instead tap into the End User Agreement genre, which our students (and, let’s admit, we ourselves) are accustomed to tapping “I agree” and ignoring, doing whatever they’re going to do anyway. Not only do they impede innovative syllabus design, they evoke the concept of “fine print,” the things that aren’t really needed until suddenly you’re wriggling through a legal loophole with the urgency of someone who sold his soul to the devil and needs to figure out how to win it back by the end of Act III (or V if you’re Early Modern and need a couple extra acts to figure your life out).

What can be done about this? First, we can ask that institutions don’t require us to reiterate policies that are already institution-wide. At Ball State University, I remind my students on Day 1 that they have agreed to our “Beneficence Pledge[2]. I don’t reprint it in the syllabus—but I do link it, and highlight the relevant parts for my course. Likewise, I don’t extensively quote definitions of plagiarism in the syllabus (I dedicate class time to having a conversation about definitions of plagiarism instead, because it’s part of my course’s content), but I do link to them.

Essentially, what we want is a streamlined syllabus—one that seems immediately useful—but is expandable as needed for those times when students do need to deal with Mephistopheles or, ya know, your late policy (same thing, right?). 

This means making policies that are based on principle rather than on technicalities. We don’t want to list every time a student did something that we were annoyed by. When our policy doesn’t cover it, it may mean that our policy is too specific, not that it is too broad.

In the end, I don’t have a solution to required language in syllabi. They’re administratively necessary in certain regards, even if they are hopelessly Byzantine and cumbersome for students. So I honestly don’t have an answer for what to do with the dreaded blocks of texts that are handed down to us from on high and required language in our syllabi.

I’ll leave that for the comments and discussions. Do you have a solution for streamlining these blocks of required and/or recommended syllabus language?

[1] We’ve all been there. That idea sounds great—lots of personal attention to students! Personalized grade plans!—until you remember that your classes are so big that they technically violate the fire code occupancy limits for your classroom and, well, you also like to get sleep sometimes.

[2] other institutions have similar “honor codes” or other terms for an agreed broad set of student conduct principles—use the one that’s relevant to your students!

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