September 1st, 2008

Using the Syllabus to Lay Down the Law


“You will submit three projects.” “I expect regular participation.” “You must attend class.” “Students bear sole responsibility for ensuring that papers…submitted electronically to the professor are received in a timely manner.” The “arrogant tone” and “imperial commands” (p. 51) are an all-too-familiar part of syllabi for college courses, writes Mano Singham in the article cited below. Edits like these even appear in the course outlines of gentle, kindly faculty members.

He also notes the lack of objection raised by students to these harshly stated demands. “Students don’t seem to be offended by being ordered around in course syllabi.” (p. 52) Could this be because they don’t read course syllabi?

Troubled by the rude tone and detailed legalism apparent in so many syllabi, Singham searches for the cause and concludes that “it is likely that the authoritarian syllabus is just the visible symptom of a deeper underlying problem, the breakdown of trust in the student-teacher relationship.” (p. 52)

Among the likely causes of the breakdown, he credits the creeping intrusion of local and national legislation into the classroom—things like the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act as well as many institutional policies and rules. He recognizes the need for both but believes that common sense and judgment should be the driving force behind making classrooms civil places conducive to learning. “My concern is that trust, respect, and judgment are being squeezed out by an increasingly adversarial relationship between teachers and students.” (p. 53)

His analysis leads him to another likely culprit: the amount of power a faculty member typically wields. No one questions their right to set the rules for every aspect of classroom decorum and everyone expects students to live by those rules. The power is nearly absolute and, as has been wisely observed, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Unfortunately, many faculty use their power not for the benefit of students, but to protect themselves against any and all potential challenges to that authority. Singham now gets personal in his analysis. He looks at the syllabus for his large 200-student physics course and recounts how the list of rules grew year by year, driven by their own internal logic. A student violated an unstated rule (by not proofreading written work, for example) and the next year a rule demanding careful editing was added to the syllabus.

Singham describes where this process took him: “I began to think that I could create a rule to achieve whatever I wanted.” (p. 54) But his analysis led him to quite a different conclusion. “I discovered that there were important things that I just could not do with my syllabus. I could not make students care about the work, be creative and original, be considerate of others, or write or speak well. All I could do was force them to do very specific things.” (p. 54) And from this discovery, he made his way to the most important insight: “I realized what I should have known all along, that learning is an inherently voluntary act that you can no more force than you can force someone to love you. Authoritarianism and fostering a love of learning just don’t go together. If they did, the best learning should occur in prison education programs, where the ‘students’ can be coerced to do almost anything.” (p. 55)

So when the opportunity to teach a small seminar course for sophomores presented itself, Singham decided to try teaching it without a syllabus. He recounts how he and the class jointly created a kind of de-facto syllabus several weeks after the course began, and how well it worked. He acknowledges when colleagues query him about how he would handle students who consistently turned in late papers (no one in the class did) that he has to face those problems individually, resolving them on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis. The approach he took with this class does not produce a fail-safe system.

But Singham believes it creates a better climate for learning—one that prevents faculty and students from becoming adversaries. This is the relationship he proposes instead: “…good neighbors in a small community. The classroom works best when students and teachers perceive it as a place where there is a continuing conversation among interested people…A sense of community is not created by rules and laws but by a sense of mutual respect and tolerance. Good neighborliness cannot be legislated—it can only be learned by example and experience, and it flourishes in an atmosphere of trust and acceptance of difference.” (p. 57)

What makes this article so good is Singham’s honest appraisal of the all the issues. Are his students ready for this much freedom and responsibility? Will they take advantage of the situation and avoid doing serious work? “The possibility that my students may not be ready for democracy worries me a little, but the thought that they should be ready for and accepting of authoritarianism troubles me a great deal more.” (p. 57)

Reference: Singham, M. (2005). Moving away from the authoritarian classroom. Change, May/June, pp. 51–57.

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