Building a 21st Century Syllabus

David Clemens

Fall semester brings some familiar rituals: the Buying-of-the-Spiral-Notebooks, the Checking-of-the-Book-Orders, and, most importantly, the-Tweaking-of-the-Syllabus.  At one time, my syllabus was a single sheet of ditto paper; now it’s 15 pages bristling with warnings, caveats, and disclaimers.  Advancing technology, eroding civility, changing pedagogy, frequent litigation and demands for accountability oblige teachers to cover their . . . policies.  Professor Terry Caesar observes that

a professor faces opening day before students like a defense attorney preparing an opening statement to the jury.  

That’s why it’s important for students to understand that a syllabus is a set of mutual obligations.  From my end, I see the syllabus as an extension of the college Academic Freedom Policy which I quote in several places, beginning with “[t]he purpose of this policy is to define 'academic freedom’ so as to protect the institutional neutrality of Monterey Peninsula College (MPC) in its practice of intellectual pluralism and to defend faculty, students, and the curriculum from the influence of any current or future political fashion or orthodoxy.”  With this, I hope to allay the fears of students whose antennae are tuned to detect indoctrination.  

Remember that students these days are savvier than ever. Students for Academic Freedom, RateMyProfessors.com, Campus Freedom Network, CampusWatch, et al. encourage students to speak up, and they don’t hesitate to do so.  And while it’s true that some of their comments can be helpful, many others reflect the schoolyard snark that comes with the “student-centered” or “student as customer” institutional models.  A good syllabus, I think, can head some of this off. 

To the customary Grading and Attendance policies, I’ve also added a classroom Decorum Policy.  Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan noted that “no one knows how to act anymore.  The result is that everyone is getting on everyone’s nerves.”  The classroom is no exception.  According to the Academic Freedom Policy, students have a right to “a decorous classroom” and “in order that students may choose from a representative `marketplace of ideas,’ MPC promotes robust intellectual pluralism practiced in an atmosphere of objectivity, respect, and civility.”  A Decorum Policy will hopefully foster civil discussion and courteous behavior. 

An Electronics Policy is mandatory these days. Mine says: turn off cell phones, no laptops, no texting, etc.  This usually eliminates the multiple distractions of, tweeting, gaming, surfing, Facebooking.  I also prohibit audio or video recording of the teacher or other students.

Today’s syllabus also needs a straight-up Plagiarism Policy.  The offense has become both broader and vaguer: Google, Wikipedia, and the cut-and-paste function often  mislead many students into thinking they are “researching” or “collaborating” rather than plagiarizing To be crystal-clear about this, I cite the MLA plagiarism definition  and tie it to concrete warnings and guaranteed penalties.

Many professors imagine “free speech” and “academic freedom” give them free rein (and reign) in the classroom.  That can be a foolish assumption.   What “academic freedom” means may be the most contested definition in higher education, one that undergoes almost case-by-case modification.  Some professors are genuinely flabbergasted when they discover that a profane or abrasive teaching style or method “does not rise to the level of protected expression . . .” (Dambrot vs. Central Michigan). Even the choice of materials such as books and films is constrained because courts consider a class to be a “captive audience.”  This makes it essential to include a syllabus warning that the class is for adults and may include material that some may find offensive (a safe bet someone will, since everything from Danish cartoons to Goya’s Naked Maja, from anatomical diagrams to life drawing, have been found “offensive” at one time or another).  Prior notice can alert the sensitive to change sections and shield the professor from possible litigation or complaint.  Here’s mine, typical for my composition and literature courses: 

WARNING: This course is intended for adults and includes films, ideas, language, and/or images which some people may find offensive or disturbing.  While our consideration of this material is strictly academic, if you are sensitive to profanity, violence, harsh language, and/or sexual content please use caution and proceed at your own risk.

Since accreditation now demands that we include official Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs) on our syllabi, I make sure to include my personal SLO disclaimer. As this indicates, I have some major problems with SLOs, since they often seem to promise what students will be able to do after completing a course.  I’d never offer a guarantee like that on my own, so I think it’s especially important to attach a clear disavowal.

Finally, every syllabus needs a closing statement to the effect that “Under the intent of the parties’ principle, your continued attendance after reviewing these policies implies your willingness to view/hear/read these materials of your own free will and to allow others to discuss them.”  In today's litigious climate, some professors even have students make affirmative assent and sign off on their acceptance of the class’s requirements. Things definitely ain’t what they used to be.  If you haven’t put together your syllabi for your fall courses yet, I’d suggest that you get started ASAP.

David Clemens is an English professor at Monterey Peninsula College.

  • Share

Most Commented

September 16, 2019

Slavery Did Not Make America Rich

'King Cotton' isn't King

September 18, 2019

Most Read

January 03, 2011

May 26, 2010