The Syllabus, Then and Now

During my undergraduate years in the late 1960s the typical course syllabus was majestic in its authoritarian simplicity. For example, see below:

ENGLISH 261: Perspectives on Dickens
Fall 1968
Professor V. Sternhaven
Office: 217 Bixby Annex
Office hours: Wednesdays 2:00 – 2:30
and by appointment

Required Reading
Dickens, Charles.  Everything He Wrote.

2 analytical papers and 1 in-class essay exam (Exam answers must be written in Latin), each worth 30% of your grade

The remaining 10% of your grade will be determined by my assessment of your attitude. HINT: Don’t whine or otherwise exhibit jerk-like behavior.

Attendance Policy
Attend every class. If you miss a class, your course grade will be reduced by a full grade unless you provide an acceptable reason for your absence. PLEASE NOTE: There are no acceptable reasons for your absence.

Extra Credit Work
There is none.

Make-Up Exam
See policy for Extra Credit Work.

In recent years, however, the syllabus has evolved into an excruciatingly detailed contract between labor (students) and management (the professor, as well as every academic administrator above the professor in the university hierarchy). Instructors weave an elaborate spider web of interconnected course goals, objectives, activities, and outcomes designed to keep accrediting bodies at bay. Although the implicit goal of Perspectives on Dickens at Princeton might be to “facilitate the formation of mutually beneficial friendship networks among privileged students that can be utilized after graduation for employment purposes,” this message would probably need to be massaged a bit before it’s ready for the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. On the other hand, professors at non-elite institutions face the challenge of articulating what some might characterize as less-than-ambitious visions for their courses: “By the end of this course, students will have read at least half of one novel by Dickens, OR viewed, in its entirety, a filmed version of one of his works. Students will be able to use the word ‘Dickens’ in a sentence and identify which one of the following characters appeared in Great Expectations: Chance the Rapper, Odell Beckham, Miss Havisham, Adele.”

Of course, what has truly transformed the syllabus into the document I love to hate is the necessity of including within it a host of you-can’t-sue-me-now university policies. A delineation of these policies can easily take up more than half the length of the syllabus. Within a decade most schools will be using a variation of the following template:

ATTENDANCE: It would be nice if you came to class, but I know you’re busy. If you miss more than 50% of our class meetings, it could affect your grade. I’m not saying it will affect your grade, but it could. However, if you never show up, your grade will almost certainly suffer. Perhaps an online section of this course would be better for you.

GRADING: In this course you can choose to be graded on your performance or on your desires. Please let me know the option you prefer by Week 3 of the semester. If you select desires, be sure to indicate the grade you wish to receive, and why. I will do my best to accommodate you. Grades of A+ are only available to students who pick the performance option, except in special circumstances. Please contact the University’s Office for Planned Giving to discuss those circumstances.

INCOMPLETES: A grade of INCOMPLETE will be given if you don’t finish all of your assignments. The INCOMPLETE will be converted to a grade of B once you turn in your work, or once you stop living, whichever comes first.

ACADEMIC INTEGRITY: Please do not plagiarize or otherwise cheat during the course. I realize that sometimes one’s options are limited because you’ve run out of time on an assignment, you walk into an exam unprepared, or you’re just not very smart. It happens. In these situations cheating may indeed be the only viable path if you wish to pass the course. If you find yourself in this fix, please contact me and we’ll work something out that doesn’t involve cash or sexual favors, but could involve washing my car. Also keep in mind that there are worse crimes than cheating. Don’t beat yourself up.

POSITIVE LEARNING ENVIRONMENT: Uttering a racial, ethnic, religious, or sexist slur in class is generally unacceptable, unless the person you’ve targeted has done something that’s really uncool, or is seriously overweight. There’s so much hate in the world these days. Please don’t contribute to it unless you have to. OK?

End of rant. May your Fall 2017 semester be everything you hoped for.