26 November 2009

Is a syllabus that hard?

Things you rarely read on RateMyProfessors.com:

“This professor had a great syllabus.”

At a meeting about faculty development last week, a few people brought up “How to write a syllabus” as a skill that new faculty could benefit in receiving some instruction. This surprised me, because I never found putting one together to be particularly challenging. The main thing that students care about how they’re going to be evaluated, and I do think it’s important to spell that out.

Most of the rest of a syllabus is legal fine print, which does prevents instructors from screwing over students. But the fine print has been getting longer over the years. There’s why I don’t think a syllabus matters that much, because it’s not mainly about teaching or learning, it’s about administrative butt-covering. I am reminded of the TED talk below that discusses the relentless emphasis on creating standards, in which Barry Schwartz says.

Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster. And they prevent disaster. But what they assure in its place is mediocrity.

Similarly, Johnnie Moore writes:

It often seems to me that everytime we experience a crisis, the solution is to write more rules. ... (T)he practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom - based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted.

Has anyone encountered a lengthy detailed syllabus anywhere outside of formal educational institutions?

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