Syllabi are about more than instruction, expectations

h3. Week 1: The Syllabus

I sometimes imagine reluctant students doing homework as being very similar to young children confronted with a bowl of peas: They’ll fiddle with the offending items, push them to the side, try to clump them into groups to give the impression of being fewer in number, and finally, when confronted by a stern guardian, will reply with a whine of “But I don’t wanna.”

It is also how I imagine reluctant teachers writing their syllabuses (Syllabaries? Syllabi? — I’m sure some conscientious logophile will tell me I’m wrong to use the term “syllabus” in the first place). The syllabus is a rather tedious object most times, full of rules and details we’d rather not spend much time on; we’d rather get to teaching a subject we love. The syllabus is the bureaucracy of the class given physical form so that no one has an excuse for not knowing it. Alas, there are always those students who necessitate each pedantic policy.

And half the time, it feels like no one but the writer bothers with the darn things, anyway; I, for one, am ready to resort to desperate measures if a student asks me when and where my office hours are one … more … time. …

I know some instructors who, when the start of term nears, will dust off last year’s syllabus, meditate on it for a while, then spit and polish and sand down some of its rougher edges, bringing their masterwork all the closer to perfection. Some are so jaded — or confident — they pull out last year’s syllabus, change the title and times around, and don’t bother with any other changes.

In my case, however, I opened my word processor and spent several hours looking dumbly at a page that contained little more than my name, office and email.

I’ve been given the rare opportunity this semester to teach a stand-alone calculus course — stand-alone meaning that I am the instructor, teaching all the classes, not just the discussion section: I’m in charge of every detail of class operation. It is a daunting proposition because there is no set precedent, no long-running standards that I can just apply my own spin to. I’ve been handed a selection of students, a list of required topics, and told to do whatever I want.

Since I’m creating this class from scratch, I also have to create each policy on homework, quizzes, attendance, tests, etc. from scratch too. I already need to start thinking about the sort of questions I want on the final, because I want to emphasize certain homework problems. And the easiest way to do that is to say, “There will be problems like this on your exams.”

One of the first things to stop me and make me really think were midterm exams. How many exams should I have? Three, I decided: Each exam would then be worth less and would reduce the impact of a freshman mistake. What day should exams be held? Tuesday, I decided: Earlier in the week meant fewer days lost to a review fever. What percentage of the total grade should exams account for? How long should they be? Should they be held in class or out? Should make-up tests be allowed?

Most of these answers accounted for less than a handful of words in my syllabus, but each — along with the answers to dozens of other nit-picky questions — required several minutes of hard thinking-time. And each time I decided on one answer, I had to go back and reevaluate several others I’d already made. By Friday, the syllabus was mostly finished, and I was glad for a chance to spend the evening at a friend’s, eating barbecue and playing games.

But when I returned, I realized that one very important thing was still missing from the syllabus, a necessary reminder for the class, but especially necessary for the instructor: “Don’t forget to have fun.”

_Joseph is a graduate student._