A survey into the importance of syllabus week
You’re sitting on the couch, glass of red wine in hand, soaking up the last few days of winter break. You feel a buzz coming from somewhere under the layers of knitted blankets. You sift through them to finally find your cell phone glowing with a new email notification: “FART 201 SYLLABUS, WINTER 2022.”
You groan but swipe through to the PDF, skimming through the information. You’re desperately trying not to sob when you see the group project worth 50 per cent of your grade. Towards the end of the document, you see the classic section entitled “Plagiarism” that details the most deadly academic crime a student can commit.
But something is off…
Have you ever noticed that the paragraphs about plagiarism seem to be copy-pasted from syllabus to syllabus, often without proper citation?
You can thank me later.
That hilarious yet blatant instance of hypocrisy has caused me to think deeply about the syllabus and what it stands for. If such an important document contains such dissonance, is it really the best way to transmit all the details of a course?
A syllabus is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a summary outline of a discourse, treatise, or course of study or of examination requirements,” or some other lengthy combination of words that could be summarized easily. The syllabus is often considered a type of contract between the professor giving a course and their students. It’s the road map that provides those taking the class with an overview of what is expected of them, and what they can expect from the professor.
While syllabi have a noble and crucial goal, I was tempted to question whether they actually reach the student population.
In a recent and incredibly sound survey (a poll conducted on my private Instagram account), 82 per cent of the 234 people who answered read their course syllabi. I was definitely not expecting this overwhelming majority. Maybe I’m just a pessimist, and have unrealistically low expectations when it comes to university students reading long and repetitive packets of information… or my friends are just overachievers.
That being said, the poll was unable to measure the level of thoroughness which students go through the course outline. Last semester, a professor from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, Kenyon Wilson, performed a mini social experiment on his students, during which he included instructions to find a $50 bill in his syllabus after telling his students to read it thoroughly. At the end of the semester, no one claimed the cash. There are two lessons here: we might not be as rigorous as we ought to be in our syllabus-reading and our professors should definitely incentivize students with money to do the bare minimum.
In another Instagram poll, I found that only 37 per cent of the 222 people who answered pay attention during the syllabus class, which is the first lecture of the semester during which some professors go over course content and take questions or concerns, taking it as far as reading the document word for word.
What was interesting was that a handful of the people who don’t read the syllabus do pay attention during the syllabus class, showing that though it can be redundant for those who read the course outline, others find that class necessary or a more effective way to retain the information.
Still, I’ve been pondering ways to make syllabi and the syllabus class more interactive, but all I could come up with is a shared Google Calendar or a hologram of your professor that appears on your shoulder whenever something is due.
So, it seems like syllabi are here to stay, and when used to their full potential, they’re helpful organizational tools. And who knows, maybe your professors will be inspired by Wilson’s experiment, so read carefully this syllabus season! (If they aren’t, you can always consider a strongly worded email to Concordia administration demanding cash for reading…).
Graphics by James Fay