Kicking off Syllabus Week without a Syllabus

I did not email students a syllabus today. Nor did I upload a syllabus to a course management site. And I did not give students a copy of the syllabus in class.

I am struck by the above sentences because they are filled with authority. I made choices. I did things—or in this case I did not do things. I have power, control, and authority to do things in the classroom, like not hand out a syllabus.

My aim in extending this authority to not hand out a syllabus is ultimately to relinquish some of my authority and privilege to my students. I do this in hopes to make a better class through collaboration with my students.

I’m not sure how well it went today by not beginning class and the semester with handing out a syllabus. I tried this very thing last semester on the first day of classes. It did not go so well. I think today went better than the previous semester.

I did tell students that our class would be themed and that the theme would be higher education. I think having that theme gives some structure to the thought-process of students and myself when confronted with a day without out a syllabus. The things we talked and wrote about in class today had a direction to move towards.

Last semester, I learned a great deal about students and myself by not handing out a syllabus. I realized how accustomed I became to the syllabus as a first day crutch. I learned that students do need a certain level of assurance on the first day of classes. They need to leave the class that day with a sense of some expectation and a trajectory for the course. That is only natural. However, it is also a byproduct, and I learned this by teaching dual enrollment courses, of the public school system where everything is spelled out and students are robbed of any agency.

Since students are likely presented with an opportunity to exert their agency in the classroom for the first time in an educational setting, I knew that my first day needed to be planed out in greater detail than I usually do for the first day of the semester. I came with the day mapped out on a piece of paper. I had questions written down to use as writing exercises. The writing exercises, all questions relating to the course, class expectations, and college, too, provide students an avenue to engage their agency. It provides an avenue to create something of their own when they don’t have a document like a syllabus on the first day. These short pieces of writing and the experience of sharing them in class provide students opportunities to engage collaboratively with the purpose and the direction of the course. I think that is important because an on-the-fly discussion can be overwhelming the first day of class. On the first day of class, in time that would have been eaten by going over a syllabus, students created and shared something that did not exist when they entered the classroom. That, I think, is more powerful than reading a syllabus.

There are several immediate benefits to not handing out a syllabus and they have, I think, some profound pedagogical impacts, especially for the composition classroom. In prefacing the brief writing we did today, I encourage students to be themselves, to write what they wanted to write, and to not write a correct answer, or an answer they thought I would like. It seemed, to me at least, that I received some knowing head nodding in response. Hopefully my encouragement worked. Perhaps it didn’t. However, I think such encouragement is more likely to work when it isn’t prefaced by a 10 page document of authority, policies, though shall not and don’t do this. Even the most student centered syllabus, void of language that allows, permits, and gives permission, is still a powerful contract with a great deal of authority. I’m not sure there is a way around that authority of a syllabus, but not giving out a syllabus on the first day of class certainly helps.

Having learned from my experience on the first day of class last semester, I knew that I needed to do something today that would also provide students a level of comfort and expectation for the class. We did two things in class to help address these concerns. First, we briefly looked at the course description and outcomes for class that are hosted on the website of the first-year writing program. I shared with students how to find it and I’ll be emailing the link to them today. I also briefly discussed the requirements for the course that are dictated by the program. I also described some of the areas in the course where we can collaborate on the policies. Second, I invited students to write down any questions or concerns that they had about the course. Those will be useful as the course and the syllabus comes together. I also suspect they will be more honest when not prefaced by an extensive presentation on the rules and regulations contained in the syllabus.

I certainly think today could have been better, but it went okay. My class today was my first 50-minute class in years. I’ve grown accustomed to the pacing of longer classes. I accounted for this in my class preparation notes by triaging certain things that I wanted to do in class. I will follow up with these items on Wednesday. For the longer classes, I suspect we will be able to cover what I did not cover in the class today.

Walking back to my office I had the chance to overhear many instructors handing out their syllabi. The more classes that I passed, the more that I overheard things, the better I felt about not giving out a syllabus today. I overheard one instructor tell their class that they like to go over the syllabus line by line. I certainly did not want to go over a syllabus line by line. While today could have been better, I am hopeful that it was a better experience for the students and myself than going over a syllabus line by line.

Note: My thinking about not handing out a syllabus is largely shaped by following Jesse Stommel and many, many others on Twitter over the past year or so. I’ve also found that reading materials shared on Hybrid Pedagogy has also been helpful, too. I’ve found a great community via Twitter; I’m thankful for that.

I realized in writing this post that I used we a lot—as in we wrote about this and wrote about that. In writing this post I am aware of the fact that I did not write anything in class. For class on Tuesday, I will certainly do my own writing. Not writing today was a mistake on my part.

Yes, there will be a syllabus. I’ll have it posted by the end of the week. It will be crafted based on what comes out of class discussions over the course of the coming days.


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