More Than a Contract

Several years ago, I read Judith Grunert’s book The Course Syllabus. The book taught me several things about syllabi that changed the way I look at them and use them in my courses. Too often we have a limited view of the syllabus, seeing it only as a contract, a document we can use to defend ourselves if students question our decisions. Some of us even require students to sign the syllabus, thereby proving they’ve read and agree to follow its policies. My guess is that most students read those as carefully as we read those policies from software companies when we’re installing something on our computer.

I’d like to share three ideas I took from Grunert’s book and have refined over the years. They describe ways to change the syllabus so it becomes something that benefits the course instead of being a necessary evil we must go over, post online, and use only when we are challenged.

First, use the syllabus to clearly define responsibilities—theirs and ours. My syllabus explains that this is a discussion class. That means I want them to talk and they can’t do so if they aren’t present. I note that talking too much can limit that discussion, adding in comments about how maturity comes from knowing when and how to participate, not from talking to illustrate that one is intelligent.

I even go so far as to explain how they should and should not use technology, with syllabus sections on cell phones, email, laptops, and printers on campus. I make this point very clear with first-year students who are making the transition to college and need to understand how to behave in a college classroom. A large percentage of our students are the first in their family to come to college, and I am committed to helping them understand what successful college students do and don’t do.

Then I write about my responsibilities, including what I do to prepare for the course. I note that I have clear goals for every class meeting and commit to clearly explaining assignments and discussing the grading criteria. If they have questions, I will provide answers until they are clear about what I want them to do. I promise I will return assignments promptly with appropriate feedback. I point out that I will be available to answer questions during office hours and with email. I do all this because I want them to see that I take all aspects of the course seriously. Seeing my commitment helps motivate them to respond with a commitment of their own.

Second, use the syllabus to explain the importance of the course. Few first-year students understand why we require them to take the general core courses. I use the syllabus to explain how my core course will benefit them throughout their college career and in life after college as well. I have a syllabus section simply titled “Why Are You Taking This Course?” We require core courses for good reasons, and they are reasons we need to share with students.

In courses I teach for our English majors, I still address the reasons why the course is important. I write about how it will benefit them as writers or teachers or readers, but I also go beyond that and explain how the course may well change their thinking in small and large ways. I have just recently added a reference to the Greek idea of “know thyself” to remind them that courses are not simply about learning material or reading great books, but are also ways to explore who we are and who we can become.

Last, a syllabus should have a thesis, much like an essay. Grunert sees the syllabus as an argument, with supporting evidence and an overall arc that will guide the course. For first-year students taking a composition course, I’m trying to make the case that this class matters to them, that they should take it as seriously as they take their major courses, not for the sake of their GPA, but because the content and skills learned in the course will serve them well in other courses and in their professional and personal lives. For majors, I try to reinforce their decision to major in English. I do so by explaining why literature remains important in a culture even when that culture does not value it.

I want students to see that my courses have been carefully designed. There is an overall plan. I’m not simply covering material or organizing the content chronologically because that’s easy or the way a textbook does it. I have thoughtfully created a structure for the course that showcases the logical coherence of the content. If they see that structure, they will understand why they’ve been assigned a certain reading, why they’re working on a particular assignment, and why we’re discussing a certain topic in class. I use the syllabus to begin introducing this structure.

A syllabus can do so much more than cover the basics. Yes, we need to talk about the required assignments, how they will be evaluated, and when major exams or papers are due, but more important, we can convey the importance of our courses and our majors. We can help students see why they should care about the course as much as we do.

Contact Kevin Brown at

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