Thursday, June 2, 2011

Syllabus Length

FLG doesn't remember if he's mentioned this before, but he makes snap judgments about professors based solely upon the length of their course syllabus. He looks at it like this:

One page to describe the objective of the course and list the course materials. A second page to describe the grading structure and policy, honor code, and any other miscellany related to grades or grading. A third page to provide a detailed course outline spelling out the readings, etc. Maybe a fourth page to describe a term project or paper. Let's throw in an extra page for some buffer. That's a total of five pages. Anything over that and FLG starts to worry about the professor.

FLG's snap judgments based on length:
1-3 pages -- Clear, concise professor who tolerates no bullshit.
3-5 pages -- Good professor with a well-described path forward
5-9 pages -- One of two types:
1) I'm sick of students whining about grades and I'm going to try to head that off by putting all sorts of contractual language and warnings in the syllabus. Oftentimes, FLG feels condescended to by these professors.
2) Overzealous listers of additional or recommended readings. FLG questions their ability to edit. If FLG wants additional reading in some area, he'll email you or visit your office hours.
10+ pages -- FLG thinks you're a self-important blowhard. For example, the biggest blowhard professor FLG ever had dropped a 17 page syllabus on the class.

Perhaps these aren't fair or always accurate. Nevertheless, if FLG gets a syllabus that's over 5 pages, then the class starts off on the wrong foot for him. The longer syllabus, the wronger the foot.


J. Otto Pohl said...

I am strictly in the one to three pages camp. I have a number of past syllabi and one for next semester in the archives of my blog. If it were possible I would like to reduce to syllabi to one page.

dance said...

self-important blowhard here!

But to be fair, it's 4 pages just for me to list the class meetings, including full citations of primary sources drawn from various places, and format it so that it's easy to read and follow. Even in the class I mainly used a textbook, it's 3 pages. If I include questions on the readings to prep for discussion each class, that's even longer.

So, aside from readings, I have:

page 1--title and description of course
page 2--grading percentages and list of 24 policy questions ("what if my paper is late?" "does my paper need a title page?" (I don't get a lot of grade-whining but I DO get a lot of repetitive format questions)) that they will find answered on my website
page 3--overview of assignments (sometimes)
a half-page--list of books/resources

then readings/class meeting detail.

jason said...

don't know about your school, but some departments/institutions may require certain sections--padding the length. (17 pages is fracking crazy)

The Ancient said...

When I was an undergraduate, I had a few courses where we were expected to read more than a thousand pages a week, divided up between primary and secondary sources. The reading list was very, very long.

What came later was not noticeably better.

Honestly, FLG, this sounds like whining.

(Vinegar is sometimes preferable to pith.)

FLG said...

The Ancient:

It's not about workload. I'm fine with lots of reading. It's the length of the syllabus that's the problem.

Flavia said...

I basically share your prejudice. When I see syllabi with pictures (a collage of author photos, for example), or elaborate and varied typeface, borders, etc., I always wonder who that twit is, and why he or she is wasting so much damn time on syllabi. (But on the other hand, I recently cleaned out a bunch of old files and found some syllabi from my own undergrad days--most of them were just 1 or 2 pp. I equally can't imagine managing that!)

As for my own, I'm scrupulous about clean, attractive format and I want all my grading/attendance/emergency policies in there, but I also want the document to be manageable, which for me means four pages max (I double-side the pages, so just two sheets). To date I've never gone onto a fifth page, but it's definitely harder with classes that involve lots of secondary readings.

The Ancient said...

Well, perhaps this is just another example of how much the world has changed over the years.

All those things that you all describe as being in a syllabus were once simply spoken, briefly if all, on the first day. But by then one had the reading list, and I suppose one was expected to have read and absorbed the the course descriptions which were easily available.

Nonetheless, the reading lists sometimes came in small binders. (Pace, FLG.)

dance said...

or elaborate and varied typeface, borders, etc., I always wonder who that twit is, and why he or she is wasting so much damn time on syllabi.

Also that twit!
(author photos no, historical images, yes; typefaces, YES; I once did pullquotes)

But, because I know how to use Word, such things don't take me so long.

Design matters because I want students to read the syllabus, and return to it to look for answers to their questions. A wall of closely spaced text is off-putting.

But---I do want my syllabus to reflect my style. It's only fair warning to give students as much information as possible---about the course, and about how I will run it---while they have time to drop.

arethusa said...

I think the Ancient's right about this being a sign of times changing. Many schools now require that syllabi include things like disability accommodation, religious holidays, honor code policies, "learning objectives" or "deliverables" for the course, grade breakdown (not just "Final Exam = 20%" but "A=93-100, A-=90-92," etc.). Such things are increasingly done to "protect" faculty and schools, and often too the syllabus is a barometer for judging faculty for promotion and tenure - in which case, its function is often seen as making a faculty member LOOK like a good teacher, never mind whether you ARE a good teacher. I prefer the Ancient's experience of covering everything briefly the first day of class and expecting students to be responsible*, frankly.

*In my experience students don't actually read the syllabus. I have heard tell of someone who gives quizzes on what's on the syllabus just to get them to read it.

Jacob T. Levy said...

"2) Overzealous listers of additional or recommended readings. FLG questions their ability to edit. If FLG wants additional reading in some area, he'll email you or visit your office hours."

Oh, boy, would you please? It's much more appealing for me to have many different people come ask such questions in my office individually, testing my on-the-spot memory each time, than for me to list out my best understanding of possible further readings in advance, all at once, while I can think about it.

Moreover, of course, if someone happens to not be an office hours-going type, or to be in the middle of reading and want ideas for further reading more or less right then, or even (heavens!) to be following up ideas *after the course has ended*, then they should understand that their desires are less consequential than your urge not to have to witness a 9-page pdf.

As for the contractual/ policy stuff: I guarantee that we wish we didn't have to bother with it. If we're bothering with it, you may rest assured that there are either bureaucratic imperatives involved or a sanity-protecting need not to answer the same e-mailed policy questions over and over again.

At root I'm out of sympathy with your basic instinct. I've been keeping those huge-reading-list syllabi since first year of undergrad, and I still consult them. The 80-page grad syllabus from the late Walter Murphy represents his lifetime of literature reviewing, and I'm grateful to have it.

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