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Is Your Syllabus “an Invitation to a Feast”?

It’s mid-July and the roads and rails around Bloomington-Normal aren’t the only things under construction. For members of the ISU teaching community, the final weeks of July often mean “SYLLABUS CONSTRUCTION AHEAD!” So I thought this might be an ideal time to share some of the thinking and reading I’ve been doing about course syllabi.

In my role here at CTLT I actually get to see a lot of syllabi … either under construction or otherwise, and these experiences lead me to believe that course syllabi (including some of my own!) often represent missed opportunities. Think about it: in many ways our course syllabi represent those all important “first impressions” … the ones we never get a second chance to make. To that end, our syllabi are very possibly the single most important teaching-related documents we produce each semester. That suggests to me that they deserve more than the cursory attention we sometimes give them.

Ideally, each syllabus will represent what Ken Bain has called “an invitation to a feast” (“Best” 75.) I love this analogy. It conjures up images of my students and me sitting down at a Hogwarts-ian banquet, replete with platters of exciting ideas and bowls of engaging assignments. Even if you can’t get that excited about your syllabus, at the very least you have to admit that this document is perhaps your best, most enduring opportunity to share with your students some of the excitement you feel about teaching this course, some of the dreams you have for your students, and some of the experiences they can anticipate in the upcoming semester.

That sounds like a tall order, I know, but this kind of “promising syllabus” (Bain, “Best” 75) isn’t really all that different from the syllabi you’re probably already composing. It has the same elements couched in new language … but that language that reflects a new attitude. Or maybe it’s actually an old attitude … the attitude that brought us to teaching in the first place, the one that may have been eroding one semester at a time as our syllabi became, not vital, forward-looking documents, but reflections of past disappointments and disillusionments, a compilation of policies and procedures grown from seeds of irritation and dismay.

The three central components of a “promising syllabus” are (1) the promises, (2) ways to fulfill those promises, and (3) “the beginning of a conversation about how the teacher and student will best come to understand the nature and progress of the student’s learning and thinking” (Bain, “Promising”). These correspond to the following elements of more traditional syllabi: course overview/outcomes; course requirements/assignments; and grading policy. Beyond these components, however, are some additional characteristics, including:

  • “warm” language (language that speaks TO students rather than ABOUT them)• evidence of flexibility
  • a sense of “invitation” rather than “commandment”; “opportunities” rather than “requirements”
  • evidence of high expectations and a support system that will help students meet them
  • the communication of a sense of possibility and the generation of a sense of excitement about the course
  • an explanation of the relevance of the course to the students and their lives

For more information about promising syllabi, click on any of the links below, read pp. 74-75 of What the Best College Teachers Do, or simply Google the term. (You’ll get a lot of hits!) If you’d like to talk to someone about your syllabus, feel free to call for an appointment (you can reach me at 438-7695) or send me an email (cclamon@ilstu.edu). I’d love to read a draft if your promising syllabus. The only problem is … I’ll probably end up wanting to take your course!

References
Bain, Ken. What the Best College Teachers Do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP. Print.
—, ed. “The Promising Syllabus.” Of Course! The Center for Teaching Excellence & Advancement of University Learning. New York University. Online.
Lang, James M. “The Promising Syllabus.” Chronicle of Higher Education. August 28, 2006. Online.
PS Did you know that the ISU “University Policies, Procedures, and Guidelines” page has a list of “required” items for your course syllabus? Under the heading of “Faculty Responsibilities to Students,” you’ll find the following information:

Faculty should provide students access to a written syllabus (printed or electronic) in a timely fashion, normally on the first day of class, for each course that they teach. The syllabus should include specific course information, office hours and location (or other means of faculty availability appropriate to the teaching assignment), objectives of the course, tentative assignment and examination schedule, attendance and other course policies. Faculty members should clearly explain to their students methods of evaluation for the final grade. Faculty should reasonably adhere to the course syllabus and should announce and explain to the class all changes to the syllabus as far in advance as possible.

None of this, of course, conflicts with any of the points I’ve made above.

Comments

Useful and stimulating thoughts--make sense. Thanks! DB

Good stuff--actually in line with the best thinking and practices in adult education. Who says our syllabi have to look and read like OUR professors' did? I accept the challenge.