Sex Ed in Higher Ed

College instructor teaching human sexuality rants about the dumbing down of America, the lost art of manners, grammar and (the perfect combination of both) the thank you note. Also includes random rants about life, pet peeves, and sometimes raves about favorite things.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Recently Added to the Endangered Species List: The Syllabus

I've blogged about the lowly syllabus here before - how mine gets longer and longer with each passing semester, how it's no longer a document of "let me show you what curriculum we will be covering," but a document of "let me make every attempt at covering my ass." But I'm starting to wonder (and yes, even though it's only Wednesday, I feel like it's been a long week, so I'm even more bitter and disillusioned than usual - if that's possible): Why am I bothering? Seriously.

After looking at another professor's syllabus this summer - I realized I was basically shooting myself in the foot when it came to managing the grading of papers. Students have to do 4 papers; in semesters past, they (surprising to nobody but me, I'm guessing) wait until the last 2 weeks and turn all 4 papers in then. And I'm stuck trying to grade approximately 200 papers the last week of class (or at least in time to meet the grades-submission deadline) when I have my own papers to be writing and my own finals to be studying for. Other professor has "mini-deadlines" and makes them all turn in paper #1 by such and such date. Ditto for paper #2 and so on and so on and they tell two friends (extra credit for you if you get that reference!) and thus, the massive flood that is their papers becomes a manageable river.

So, Monday night, I did a lot of finger-shaking and reminding. (Yes, this is why I thought I wanted to go into "higher" education. Cripes. I don't have children for about a million reasons and this is just one of them. Who wants to be a professional nag?) "Remember, your first installment of the assignment is due next week. Don't forget. Remember, remember, remember." And, if I'm not mistaken, I did the two week countdown last week as well.

The instructions for all assignments are in the syllabus. Really, they could NOT be more detailed. Short of me telling them what type of printer they should be using, I spell it out so they don't have to guess anything. I believe in clear rubrics. I think that's fair. And because I want to dispel any anxiety about what may be expected of them, I even have them TAKE TURNS reading the syllabus aloud the first night of class. It takes forever, but I consider it an investment in their success and my sanity. All spelled out. No surprises. (Aside: Another professor (and another commenter on this very blog) uses a contract - students sign a piece of paper stating they have read the syllabus and will abide by whatever it says. For some reason, I figured this wouldn't work with my students, but maybe I need to reconsider?)

Imagine my consternation when cute-frat-boy type walks up to me after class. "Yeah, uh, about this paper that's due next week?" he says in a skeptical tone, like I just sprung it on them about 5 minutes ago. "Mmm-hmm," I say, only half-listening because I am still inwardly flabbergasted by the word bank kid. "Like, uh, what are we supposed to do for them?" Since this has happened to me before I said, "Well, if you recall, everything you need to know is in the syllabus. If I explain it to you now, I might forget something important, so just look in your syllabus." He looked confused. "I don't think I have one of those things." Wasn't in class the first night? Yes, it turns out, he was. I'm pretty sure I had extra syllabi at the end of the night - did he not get one? Oh, now it turns out he did get one, he just doesn't know what he did with it. So could he, uh, have one? This is another one I love. Could I borrow a stapler? Can you lend me a paper clip? How about a syllabus? They see what I bring to class. Do they think I also have a portable office somewhere on me as well? Hold on, let me check all my body cavities. I believe there's a stapler here somewhere . . .

I refer him to the class website where the syllabus is posted as well. "Yeah, I think I saw it the other day. Although I might have been looking at the wrong one because it says the lab fee is $10.00 a week and so far we haven't had to bring any money here." So far. But hey - he's given me an idea on how to update my wardrobe for fall: "Students, due to the extreme increases in prices of things like chalk, we are now charging $10.00 per class, per student, for 'operational costs.'" Right, I agree, it's probably not the right syllabus. But I'm fairly certain it's online. Yet, he clearly doesn't want to go online. (Maybe he doesn't know how? Maybe I just missed a "teachable moment?") "Aw, c'mon," he wheedled. "Just, like, you know, how long does it have to be and stuff and what are we supposed to write about?" I didn't answer him directly for two very good reasons: 1.) There is a long list of writing prompts in the syllabus as well as details about precisely how long each section should be and I honestly couldn't remember them all off the top of my head. And, 2.) I didn't feel like it.

I may have already blogged about this, but it's still not as bad as a colleague's student: He showed up to the midterm completely unprepared and begged her not to make him take the exam right then and there. Reason? He hadn't yet bought the textbook. They were in the main office when she was giving him the makeup exam and I witnessed the rest of the scenario. She asked him why he hadn't yet bought the book. He said he didn't think he'd need it "so soon" in the semester. She asked about the syllabus. He actually said, "Yeah, I try not to read those if I can help it." I don't know him, so I can't tell if he was being serious or sarcastic - I mean the content was sarcastic - I think - but the tone was completely serious.

So tell me: should I just get over myself and my 6 or 7 or 8 page syllabus (although, if I'm not mistaken, we are required to have one on file with the department) and explain everything a week before they need to do it? Based on the number of students who have "last minute emergency printer problems where every printer in all 43 of the university's printing labs happens to be broken or out of toner at the same time", I figure they never do anything more than a week in advance, at the absolute most. Because you know? I'm starting to feel guilty about all those trees I'm killing for no good reason.

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18 Comments:

Blogger Adjunct Slave said...

Here's the thing. Whether they act like adults, legally, they are adults. And if my students want me to treat them like adults, then they have to suck it up and deal.

I didn't even bother giving them a syllabus this semester. I put it up on the supplemental site. When they ask me a question that's in the syllabus, I ask them if they have a copy/read it/even know what one is. I usually get a shamed look and that's the end of it.

They have to learn sometime. Here's your 'teaching experience.'

September 27, 2006 8:45 PM  
Anonymous Lady S said...

Man, I thought my second graders were whiny and needy. I just told them I would no longer spoon-feed them everything they need to do and if they haven't read the directions I am not going to help them.

These are seven year olds! It is amazing how much they regress in 11 years.

September 27, 2006 9:05 PM  
Anonymous socprof said...

My syllabi have gotten longer and longer over the years as well. One six-month stint of being harassed, stalked, and threatened by a student who'd failed and I was cured of the shorter syllabus. I've also debated whether to have a syllabus quiz, but till I get tenure, I don't think I can get away with it. When students pull shit, I direct them to the syllabus. Q. When are your ofc hrs? A. Syllabus. Q. Why can't I turn that in late? A. Syllabus. Q. When's the paper due? A. Syllabus. And then sometimes none of this works, and I just come home in an alienated fog, wondering what loose screw I had the day I decided that academia was the thing for me. Sigh.

September 27, 2006 11:20 PM  
Anonymous moobs said...

Use a contract. In that contract stipulate that they agree, at their own expenses, to have the syllabus tatooed onto their hands.

Probably more effecttive would be to have it printed on beer mats and leave them in the college bar.

September 28, 2006 9:23 AM  
Blogger Sue said...

Your stories still amaze me, even though I see it every day. I have yet to lose a syllabus. Though some of it is frivalous, I live by the assignment schedules that are included. I'll never understand what some of those kids do with them...do they run out of TP often in the dorms or something?

I'm laughing at the "I've read the syllabus" contract. It's probably not a bad idea.

Ok blogger, just how many times do I have to try and submit this comment? Three?

September 28, 2006 10:01 AM  
Anonymous Miss Britt said...

Definitely KEEP the syllabus and add the contract. Something about making them sign their own damn name.

I teach second graders and I make them sign the "class rules" we come up with the first day. If an 8 year old can do it - so can they.

September 28, 2006 11:12 AM  
Anonymous heather said...

I've been reading for about a month, but have yet to comment. But I love your blog!
Anyhow, as a college student majoring to be a HS health teacher, this blog makes me afraid (half joking-half serious), and annoyed of fellow students. I don't understand how kids today (see I say that too and I AM a 'kid') are so stupid. They want their hands held through everything. So, as a part of that generation (but in NO way like them) I apologize. But I think you are doing the right thing. :)

September 28, 2006 11:30 AM  
Blogger Suzi said...

I have many students losing their syllabi, too. I don't know why. I don't keep extra copies because I don't want to lug the paper around.

For our complicated assignments, I assign pieces. They have to have their sources and notes by day X. I don't regrade them. If they don't have them, they get 0s. They have to have an outline by day Y. They have to have their sources' citations by day Z. I feel that I may be babying them too much, but I know if I don't do it that I won't get half the papers done correctly.

September 28, 2006 12:01 PM  
Blogger Suzi said...

Three? Is that the magic number? My comment will be shorter this time, though.

I have lots of students losing the syllabus this semester.

I also break down our most complicated project into five parts. Each part is graded separately and in order. After they've gotten the parts back, they write and I grade the whole thing.

September 28, 2006 12:03 PM  
Blogger ricki said...

Yeah, that seems pretty much par for the course. I teach an introductory class where I have a very detailed syllabus (down to LETTING THEM KNOW when quizzes are), and I still have people who are utterly clueless, who say, "Oh, I didn't think it [the syllabus] was important, so I threw it away," etc., etc.

it's perhaps 10% of my class but those folks are so needy they make it seem like 100%. The truth is: I can tell my "A" students 'cos they're the ones who know the syllabus and know due-dates, etc. It's the D students who come up and claim that they "never knew" about the assigned homework, even though it was
(a) in the syllabus
(b) announced by me in class more than once
(c) posted on the class website.

I find myself having to suppress the occasional urge to ask "And do you want me to come to your house and wipe your bottom for you after you've made #2, as well?" Because seriously: these people are adults. They'd be the first to pitch a fit if their driving privileges or their drinking privileges were taken away. But they can become awfully childlike within the confines of a classroom.

I've tried tough love, and based on the evaluations I got, I've decided that I'm best off reserving that for once I make full professor and get closer to retirement.

I like the beer mat idea. That might just work.

September 28, 2006 1:08 PM  
Anonymous edj said...

I'll tell you my best story. Day of midterm exam. This is a writing class in the English dept. of an African univ. A student called me over.
"Teacher, there's something wrong with these questions."
Me, fixed smile. "What's wrong with them?"
Student: "In order to answer them, you'd have had to be in class. I haven't been in class."
No kidding--I'd NEVER SEEN HIM BEFORE!!
At least we're never bored :)

September 28, 2006 4:11 PM  
Blogger Mrs. T said...

I agree with the keep the syllabus people. I think the contract also might be a good idea. I WAS one of those kids who always left everything til the last possible minute, but never in a million years would have asked for an extension. Never. And? If one of my profs would have answered my question with "Syllabus.", you can damn well be sure I went home and read it and when I was done, read it again.

September 28, 2006 4:19 PM  
Blogger Cara said...

I wouldn't bother with any prompts, but I would add the contract. Then kill more trees by making contract copies that you can throw back at them.

September 28, 2006 4:34 PM  
Blogger Tense Teacher said...

I make my high school students sign a contract as a CYA policy; that way when they tell Mommy and Daddy or the administration that they didn't know the rules, I have proof stating that they've been told.

September 28, 2006 6:17 PM  
Blogger Art Nerd Lauren said...

Whee, I'm famous!

I had to sign a contract with my Spanish and Latin teacher in high school, that's where I got the idea. I think. Anyway, they're sitting here being a big fat waste of wood, until the day one of them goes- No makeup exams? Unless I contacted you before the exam started? Because that is my policy.

I hadn't thought of having the students read the syllabus out loud to each other- that is a wonderful idea. Since I wrote it, I kind of breeze through it. They'd be more deliberate, and also it would take more time. Which would help with my average first class period time of 20 minutes. Thanks, TL!

September 28, 2006 9:15 PM  
Blogger Teacher lady said...

Glad to be of service, Art Nerd Lauren. And thanks everyone for your great advice!

September 28, 2006 9:41 PM  
Anonymous Antique Mommy said...

No dammit! I only got one syllabus in my college classes (three pages at most and no web page!) and so they should only get one too. Part of going to college is learning how to manage yourself. I clearly remember hearing a professor of mine tell a young student who was complaining about having lost the syllabus "Oh, that's too bad!" I had to laugh and I really respected that. Do these people think they will be spoon fed out in the real world? Gah. Pet peeve.

September 29, 2006 5:40 AM  
Blogger happychyck said...

When I was in college, I didn't mind a long syllabus because to me it was like a handbook to the class. Spending the first night reading it would have been irritaing to me, but having the professor refer to it throughout the quarter for various assignments seemed reasonable.

I wonder how many students actually appreciate your syllabus because it has EVERYTHING you could possibly need to know to survive the class. Consider the students who benefit from your efforts and ignore those who will probably not make it through the year because they're too co-dependent.

September 29, 2006 8:19 AM  

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