Reclaiming My Syllabus

Design plans sitting on a desk

by Angela Benson, College of Education

I have lost control of my syllabus. I’ve focused so much on making it meet the standards enforced by the online syllabus management system that I’ve lost sight of its true purpose: to invite students into a safe space where they can show and develop their greatness.

I have long had a love-hate relationship with the online syllabus management system. I immediately embraced the online system when I joined the UA faculty. My previous institution did not have one, so I immediately saw its benefits. First, the online system makes the syllabus directly available to students during the registration period. This means each student considering registering for one of my courses no longer has to email me for a copy of the syllabus and I no longer have to respond to a series of student emails requesting a copy. Second, the online system automatically includes all required standard university and college policies. Since these policies change over time, I no longer have to wonder if I am providing my students the most recent versions; the online system assures that I am. Third, the online system allows me to easily copy and revise a syllabus from one semester to the next. Since I was doing this copy-revise process when I was providing my syllabus to students in Word format, the online system had to meet that minimum standard; it does. These three benefits of the online syllabus management system justify my love relationship with it.

The downside to my relationship with the online syllabus management system is a common downside associated with the use of technology — the system privileges certain stakeholders and processes. The online system has required components for each syllabus. The system will not allow me to publish a syllabus without those components. Though the online system will allow me to add instructor-specific components to my syllabus, the system will not allow me to determine where these instructor-specific components are placed, nor will it include these instructor-specific components when I copy a syllabus from one semester to the next. In this way, the online system privileges standard policies and required components over instructor-specific components. Further, the system appears to privilege the needs of institutional (assessment and accreditation) stakeholders over the needs of faculty and staff stakeholders.

This idea of online system privilege was driven home for me during the two courses I took at the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute this summer.  Both courses gave me plenty of time to reflect on my personal teaching practice. In the one-day Applied Imagination course, facilitator Naomi de la Tour (University of Warwick, UK) challenged us to imagine education and our classrooms “as they might be otherwise.” We were encouraged to drop our normal constraints and cautions and imagine possibilities. I found it difficult to think outside the box as my first thought was that I wanted all students in my courses to do well. As I continued the imagination exercise, my thoughts turned to the lives my students lived outside my course and outside the walls of the university. I realized I wanted my classroom to be a place where students could be their best and authentic selves and safely explore, experience and challenge their worlds. As my vision became clear, I wondered how I would share it with my students and have them join in it with me. One of my course peers had the same concern and chimed in that she would include hers in her syllabus. Eureka! I knew she was right; the syllabus was the place to share the vision and gain student input and buy-in. What I didn’t yet know was how to put my vision into words.

woman using metal grinder

Well, that insight came during the four-day Writing about Teaching course, facilitated by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris. Sean gave us an activity to “Write to a student an explanation of your hopes for them.” Based on what I had learned in the Imagination workshop, I realized my hopes for my students extended beyond the classroom, the course, the semester and the campus. I have life hopes for them to which I hope my course contributes. Putting those hopes on paper in a Dear Student letter was both exhilarating and deeply moving for me. The writing brought home for me the depth of influence I have on my students’ lives and the responsibility that comes with that influence.

At the conclusion of our writing activity, Sean gave us an important question for discussion and continued reflection: “How does the explanation you just wrote echo the way you teach, research, or do your job? Where does it fit in your professional work?” Answering this question revealed to me the work I needed to do to ensure the connection between my vision and what students experienced in my courses.

It was at this point that my thoughts turned to the online syllabus system. Where in the syllabus was I going to put this Dear Student letter? I wanted it near the top, after the Instructor Contact Information section, but as far as I knew the online system wouldn’t let me move an instructor-specific component to that position. When I shared with a colleague my desire to put a Dear Student letter in my syllabus and expressed to her the challenges I faced with the online syllabus system, her response was, “Why put it in the syllabus? Students don’t read the syllabus. It’s not for them anyway; the syllabus is [now] for [institutional] assessment.” I was taken aback when the colleague standing with us nodded in agreement. It was at this point that I decided I needed to reclaim my syllabus.

Today I reclaim my syllabus. Though it may have to serve stakeholders other than my students, I will give my best effort to make sure that it serves my students, invites them to engage in a shared vision for my course and lets each of them know that I see and respect the greatness in them. In a 2017 blog post, Sean Michael Morris encouraged Reimagining the Syllabus. Well, I’m doing that and more. First, I’m going to finish my Dear Student letter. I shared a portion of the draft I wrote while at DPL in a letter to students in one of my courses this semester. One of the twelve students in the course wrote back, “This is so encouraging and well received. Thank you for creating a platform for us to flourish and nurture our creativity.” This is only one student but it’s a start. Second, I’m going to review my syllabus for ways to make it more inviting and inclusive for my students. I know this means changing some of the language in the required components and giving my voice to some of the standard campus policies. For my syllabus to be effective, it shouldn’t read like a contract. How many of us read contracts thoroughly? Third, I will speak with whomever administers the online syllabus management system, to see what tools are available for me to make my syllabus better meet the needs of me and my students.  I’m hoping my love relationship with the online syllabus management system will be enhanced after this meeting.

What are you doing with your syllabus to make you and your course more welcoming and inclusive for students? I welcome the opportunity to learn from you.

Further Reading