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What's in a syllabus? Bryn Mawr students and professors offer opinions on the ideal course map

Bryn Mawr College prides itself as a place where students and professors come together in a mutually respectful environment dedicated to learning.

But even in Bryn Mawr's Honor Code-enriched environment, a well-designed syllabus can help students understand their instructors' expectations and reduce misunderstandings, say a number of students and faculty members.

"I devote the entire first class to going over the syllabus," said English Lecturer Ray Ricketts. "It sets the tone for the whole semester."

While Ricketts doesn't find it necessary to include all the guidelines for class conduct in syllabi for Bryn Mawr classes that he's included at other schools at which he's taught, he does still find it helpful to spell out some things not covered by the Honor Code.

"Bryn Mawr students tend to be very responsible, but I still find it useful to include basic rules about attendance and the turning in of assignments," said Ricketts.

Political Science Lecturer Deborah Harrold agreed with Ricketts that the sorts of behavior rules highlighted in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article on the growing complexity, detail and punitive legalese seen in syllabi at many institutions aren't necessary at Bryn Mawr.

In fact, Harrold thinks such draconian guidelines are ineffective anywhere.

"While I've had only a few problems with student behavior, I believe that punitive language in a syllabus is counterproductive because it casts the whole class as potential bad actors.  When I read a syllabus full of warnings, I feel like acting up myself," Harrold wrote in an email.

"I prefer to talk generally about potential problems; computer problems during exam week, for example, which is today's version of 'the dog ate my homework,'" she added.

Spanish instructor Elisa Menocal Rooney includes an item in her current syllabus on her expectation that students come to class understanding basic rules of grammar so that classroom time can be devoted to "communicative activities."

"Grammar is clearly explained in English in the textbook, and ample written and aural (listening) exercises are provided online at the Imagina Supersite.  Please come to class prepared and bring your enthusiasm and energy!" reads her syllabus.

Rooney also lays out detailed attendance requirements in her syllabus but leaves her one classroom behavior rule out.

"Usually on the first day of class, I add that I really only have one classroom behavior rule:  Nada en la boca (nothing in your mouth)!  I then explain that since we spend most of the class listening and speaking, asking and answering questions, working in pairs or small groups, having anything in your mouth makes it much more difficult to communicate and/or to be understood. I suppose I could add this rule to my syllabus, but I don't because not all of the instructors who share the same syllabus would use it for their own classes," Rooney wrote in an email.

Ricketts noted that a detailed syllabus can be especially useful at Bryn Mawr, where students can take advantage of the "shopping" period at the beginning of each semester, but he thinks this may also discourage some faculty from being too precise with their syllabi.

"I think there's some push-back from faculty to laying everything out for students. It's the idea that this isn't a store and you're not a consumer," said Ricketts.

Students, for the most part, agreed that a thorough syllabus is invaluable during the shopping period.

"A detailed syllabus is really helpful during shopping week because you can get a somewhat good idea about what a class will be like—for example, how heavy the reading load/workload will be—so that you can better plan your semester schedule," wrote Lauren Earle '09 in an e-mail.

So what makes for a great syllabus?

A number of students echoed the opinions of Earle.

"I really like to see the weekly schedule for homework, assignments, papers, and readings so that I know exactly what is due and when. It's also useful to know the instructor's policies about late work/extensions/missing class because it really differs from one class to the next. I like to think of a syllabus as sort of a little pocket-professor," she wrote.

Other often-mentioned items included having syllabi available electronically, notations on the grade-weight of each assignment and building in some degree of flexibility.

Most students said a section on general classroom behavior wasn't necessary and some even went so far as to call such items "ridiculous," "patronizing," or even "insulting." However a few students wrote about classes that might have benefitted from such guidelines or professors with particular pet peeves that needed to be spelled out.

"I have taken more than one (small) class in which a professor has had to scold students for whispering or passing notes (noticeably) during class and being generally disruptive," wrote Kate Kolbell '10.

Earle recalled a professor who noted on the first day of class that knitting was forbidden and that she didn't like people to get up and leave the room.

"If the professor makes these preferences clear to the students, they can create a mature and helpful learning environment for each other that will be beneficial to everyone," wrote Earle.

The message sent by a poorly prepared syllabus was summed up in an e-mail from senior Alex Heilbronner.

"Professors who give out vague syllabi with unstated expectations give the impression that they have forgotten that you take other classes besides theirs, and that you are involved in activities outside of the classroom—they just assume that you will do whatever they tell you to, regardless of short notice or time constraints," wrote Heilbronner.

"Overall I've been satisfied with the level of detail on syllabi. I have had experiences with professors adding assignments halfway through the semester (extra essays, weekly response papers, etc), and I have had professors give out incredibly vague syllabi and then say one day ‘OK, you have a seven-page research paper due a week from now,' as if we were supposed to know about it all along," she added.

Like nearly everything in life, it appears that a really good syllabus is a bit of a compromise.

"I don't want a syllabus to be painfully strict—if it is, chances are high that I won't take the class anyway—but I also like at least a little room to move around and adapt course expectations to my own style of working. There is a definite line, however, between open-ended enough to leave maneuverability and open-ended to the extent of providing no help at all," wrote Kolbell.


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Posted 4/3/2008 by Claudia Ginanni