Spelling it Out: The Problem with the Great Big Syllabus

College syllabi are getting to be too long, Thomas Bertonneau complains over at the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

He used to be able to produce syllabi for his courses that were short and somewhat vague. And that was enough. But students began to protest against this. And today?

Nowadays my course syllabi tend to run to many pages and always include a punctilious day-by-day calendar of the semester stipulating, for example, precisely which pages in what book students need to have read for class. My instructions to students concerning formal written work have also become replete with prescription in a way that I would not have thought necessary even ten years ago. Colleagues concur that instructors at the state-college level can take little or nothing for granted about student preparedness and that everything, absolutely everything, must be spelled out in advance. Without abundant guidance and prescription, students complain of being lost, as perhaps they are, or of “not understanding what the professor wants,” as is perhaps the case.

The technical accuracy of this is perhaps debatable (what was the average word count of an undergraduate-level syllabus in 1981 vs. today?) but he’s probably on to something. Students today want to know exactly how they’re going to be graded and exactly what they’re expected to deliver.

Bertonneau, a visiting associate professor at SUNY Oswego, thinks this is an example students’ general incompetence.

Students today don’t value learning and, furthermore:

Instructions for formal written work in my teaching have also grown more explicit, more detailed and copious, over the years. Mostly, that is due to my increasing awareness of how badly prepared for serious writing almost all contemporary college students are. In 1974, a professor would simply have told his students that they should write an essay comparing Madame Bovary and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. Only a few of my students then would have no idea how to respond to so minimal a request.

The expanding syllabus apparently equals the decline of education as we know it.

Then again, what’s really wrong with students demanding explicit information about what they’re expected to do? Sure it might be a little tiresome, and even vulgar, to have to spell the whole course out like that but students today understand that grades are important; it doesn’t seem wrong for them to demand, in writing, exactly how they’re expected to perform.

Furthermore, Bertonneau is the English professor. If his students don’t know how to do serious writing or interpret and understand the Western canon, that isn’t really the sort of problem that can be solved with a syllabus. It can, however, be solved by education. Shouldn’t he just be teaching them?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer