Hands Off My Syllabus!

The course outline or course syllabus is a teaching tool. Since it is a teaching tool, what it contains should be entirely up to the professor. Professors’ prerogatives with regard to their syllabi should be protected by academic freedom guarantees.

Well, that’s in an ideal world. In the real world, in order to balance what might be competing interests among students, professors, and the university, perhaps some university senate guidelines are necessary. Even so, senates should legislate with a light hand.

The writing of syllabi used to be entrusted to professors, but two or three decades ago, rules and regulations began to multiply. Today, at many universities, half or more of a course syllabus will be material that the university mandates. Senates might require that syllabi contain warnings regarding plagiarism, statements of learning outcomes, blurbs for the writing center or student counseling services, directions for special needs students, or the university’s safe-and-respectful campus policy. Professors might be instructed to include their preferred pronouns or an indigenous land acknowledgement.

At some universities, professors are directed to follow a template when constructing a syllabus. This is to ensure uniformity in both content and appearance across the university. Sometimes, professors must submit their syllabi in advance to the dean for approval.

Professors who wish to beef up their syllabi with plagiarism warnings and the rest should, of course, be free to do so. No professor should be forced to include any of this material, though.

For my part, I want my syllabi to be short and plain. A short, plain syllabus helps create the classroom atmosphere that I like. We’re in class to discuss philosophical problems, and a bare-bones syllabus with no distractions helps to signal that.

I don’t include a warning against plagiarism. I think, first, that it is presumptuous and insulting to do so. Even plagiarism statements dressed up to look like simple information to guide the perplexed carry the suggestion that students are cheaters and that the professors are watching them. I also find that many of my students have been scared to death by all the warnings. They are so worried about unintentionally plagiarizing something that they won’t include interesting points or relevant arguments in their essays if they can’t remember the source and aren’t sure they came up with them on their own.

The current emphasis on learning outcomes reflects the success of a particular theory of university teaching and the mission of the university. Not its academic success, but its success in propagating itself. Learning outcomes listed on the syllabus tend to follow a standard form: “By the end of this course, students: will have acquired knowledge of the categorical imperative; will have come to value group decision making; [and so on through two or three more bullet points].”

Lists of learning outcomes misconstrue my pedagogical goals, perhaps because I lack any. Save for the logic courses I teach, where I am, more or less, trying to purvey information, I’m there just to help the students talk about the matter at hand. My courses begin with philosophical problems, and our concern is to try to solve them by talking about them. I can reasonably expect that many of my students will learn something or other and acquire or develop skills, but our focus is on the problems we discuss. Learning-outcomes pedagogies mislead the students into thinking the course is about them rather than the task.

Other professors, even in philosophy, have different pedagogical goals and methods and may well subscribe to learning-outcomes theory. Requiring that all professors state learning outcomes, though, tends toward standardization and uniformity across the university. That’s bad if universities are to encourage individual development, for we develop as individuals when we choose for ourselves from a variety of options with which we are acquainted. It also creates student expectations (“What are the learning outcomes for this course?”) that professors might not want to serve.

A long, standardized, formal syllabus can appear to a student to be a contract, one that can be altered only with the consent of all parties. Professors, though, might decide while teaching to expand a section or drop one, to add a couple of surprise tests, or to ask that instead of a third essay, students submit a rewritten second essay. When professors exercise their judgement and depart from their original plans, students can think themselves ill-used.

Nothing I have said implies that professors should be indifferent to their colleagues’ pedagogical choices. Indeed, they should not. A university might have an in-house journal of teaching and learning in which professors can criticize ineffective or unwise pedagogical options (they need not name the professors they wish would change their ways). It might have a center that organizes or sponsors presentations and discussions at which people can exchange views regarding syllabi.

So long as they act on the decisions of academic senates, universities probably can require that for each course taught at the institution, the professor provide a syllabus, that it be distributed on the first day of class, and that it contain a grading scheme. This might, of course, be like requiring that professors bathe regularly and speak up in class. Almost all of us think that handing out a syllabus is a good idea, and we don’t need to be ordered to do so. Having a rule can make sense only if those who reject the good idea thereby put something valuable at risk.

The fact is, though, that many students want to know right away when tests will be held, what they are to read, what the assignments will demand, and what the grading scheme is. They might not need to know any of this the first day, week, or month in order for the course to go well, but if they can’t find out, they might elect to go elsewhere. That is why it is not only a good idea to pass out a sheet at the beginning of term that contains this information but it is also perhaps wise of universities to insist that this information be on the sheet. If the risk of losing students to other departments or institutions is high, then the collective can insist that the outlier gets in line. (But is the risk high?)

Attracting and keeping students by honoring one of their preferences is not an academic justification for university oversight of syllabi, of course. But minimal oversight might nonetheless be all-things-considered warranted.

What’s warranted academically, though, is “Hands Off!” Universities and their academic senates should recognize that syllabi are teaching tools and that for the sake of education, professors need to enjoy wide academic freedom in teaching.

Image: ron dyar, Public Domain


Mark Mercer

Mark Mercer (sergechestnut@gmail.com) is a professor of philosophy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the president of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship.

4 thoughts on “Hands Off My Syllabus!

  1. “Professors’ prerogatives with regard to their syllabi should be protected by academic freedom guarantees.”

    I vehemently disagree — there is nothing in academic freedom mandating a university hire someone to teach a subject the university doesn’t wish to have taught, and the failure of this simple fact to be recognized over the past 40-50 years is why we have the mess we do today.

    Academic freedom evolved out of Jane Stanford ordering Stanford University to fire an economics professor who stated that her late husband Leland had exploited Chinese laborers in building his railroad. That’s one thing — and it would remain one thing were he to teach that in the context of teaching about the economics of 19th Century railroad construction or even the larger topic of 19th Century railroading.

    But if he’s teaching a course about the economic issues of modern mass transit, or even that of Amtrak (which can sell me a 39 cent can of Diet Pepsi for $2.50 and somehow *still* lose money in the transaction), Leland Standford’s abuse of Chinese labor really isn’t relevant. OK, as an aside tossed in, fine — but the economics of subsidized rail transportation in the 21st Century involve things like the ratio between subsidy and fare revenue, not 19th Century labor conditions.

    (We don’t even lay track the way they did in the 19th Century — it’s all mechanized with quarter-mile-long pieces of rail and heavy equipment that measures with lasers and physically lifts the track and puts it where it should be to ensure the correct trigonometry. The mile-long trains of today simply couldn’t run on rail that was manually installed using 19th Century methods…)

    We’ve tolerated professors teaching off topic for way too long — for example, not only is the “3/5ths compromise” much misunderstood*, but it’s really not relevant to the Bill of Rights. Nor to a discussion of Lincoln’s suspension of the writ of habeus corpus in Maryland and the issues that raised.

    Bluntly stated, the physics professor may be interested in botany, but he/she/it is hired to teach physics….

    *Prior to the 16th Amendment, the Federal government taxed states and not individuals, and it could *only* tax the states on the basis of their population (i.e. headcount) — with the state then taxing its residents to raise the money that it would send to DC. And a poor state had to pay, on a per-person basis, the exact same amount of money to DC as a wealthy state as this wasn’t based on wealth.

    And note that “Indians not taxed” weren’t counted at all — that’s often missed.

    Well, the free states wanted the slaves counted in the population so that the slave states would have to pay more (and the free states less) while the slave states wanted it the other way for the exact same reason. This also affected the number of Congressmen with the free states not wanting the slaves counted at all while the slave states thought they should be. And hence the 3/5ths compromise.

    Others may not agree with me on that — and academic freedom (should) protect my right to teach it — in a relevant course.

    1. I nowhere in my article took issue with the requirement that professors teach the courses assigned to them. In fact, I support the contractual obligation professors have to fit their courses to the relevant Academic Calendar course description. I nowhere addressed the matter of professors going off topic in lectures or with assignments.

      1. If I misread your article, I apologize, but I just re-read it and still don’t see either of the above two points being made — and there are other portions that could lead to the opposite conclusion.

        I have seen the concept of academic freedom badly abused. I have seen it used to justify threatening to burn a shire town flat if the authorities dared try a student for a crime that he very clearly committed (there was digital video of him stabbing the two boys — two cameras with two different angles) and I’ve seen it used to justify using a graduate program as the professor’s personal dating service. While it technically involved the faculty union and not the faculty senate (largely a distinction without a difference), I once saw academic freedom used to justify disrupting a graduation ceremony because — heaven forbid — the commencement speaker that year was a Republican.

        The professors were handing out noisemakers outside the arena before the event — they flagrantly disrupted a public assembly, in violation of state law, because they were protected by academic freedom.

        The other thing that people don’t much like to talk about is that there are faculty with mental health challenges — sometimes going off the deep end midway through the semester. It’s an issue with doctors, it’s an issue with police officers and it’s an issue with professors — and formalized documents such as a syllabus protect both the students and the professor in such circumstances.

        And as to “off the deep end”, I mean like not showing up to class for over a month after his wife discovered that he was sleeping with his TA, and then handing out final exams on stuff he’d never taught, or being committed to the psych ward after biting off the tip of a campus police officer’s finger under circumstances that I never quite did get the full story on. Or the dean hiring his girlfriend to a tenure-track faculty slot without any search, and then that all blowing up very publicly as both were married, just not to each other. Etc…

        We may disagree, but I argue that students have a right to a predictable classroom environment. I believe that they have the right to know (in general terms) what you will be teaching them, how you will be teaching it, and how you will evaluate them.

        In an institution which maintains consistent standards of academic rigor — a different issue — I have no problem with students selecting a class on the aforementioned three criteria. Without going too deeply into the weeds, between the variety of learning styles that students have and the variety of pedagogical approaches that professors inevitably will have, no professor — no matter how gifted and no matter how much effort exerted — will be the “right” professor for every student.

        The same thing is true of medical doctors — a friend has a MD whom he thinks very highly of, but whom I’d be trading obscenities with, even if he didn’t provoke me to do something like drink corn syrup before my labs out of spite. (“You want a high sugar count, you #@%$&, how’s this one?!?”)

  2. “I don’t include a warning against plagiarism. I think, first, that it is presumptuous and insulting to do so. Even plagiarism statements dressed up to look like simple information to guide the perplexed carry the suggestion that students are cheaters and that the professors are watching them. ”

    I thought this as well until a grad student from the PRC submitted a paper that was a simple cut and paste from Wikipedia.

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