Sunday, May 17, 2015

Life in the Pissant Swamp: The Curious Incident of Syllabus Anxiety...

It happens every semester. I get a healthy number of emails during the course of the semester and particularly at the end of the term asking me questions that have already been answered in the syllabi for my classes.

J.M.Slattery, and J.F. Carlson define the college syllabus as a "contract between faculty members and their students, designed to answer students' questions about a course, as well as inform them about what will happen should they fail to meet course expectations." This is, I suppose, a decent enough definition but today's syllabi are more than that. My syllabi, for instance, contain the standard information about me, about when my office hours are, about where my office hours are held, about what time my office hours are, about what time the class meets, about the objectives for the class--these became a mania in lower and higher education in the 1970s--detailed information about class assignments, detailed information about what students are expected to read weekly in preparation for class meetings, a detailed class calendar, and detailed information on the total number of points students can earn in my classes and detailed information on how to compute letter grades from total number grades. The syllabus has become more than this since the 1970s when I was an undergraduate at Indiana University in Bloomington, however. When I was a student the syllabus was mostly about the educational aspects of the class. Today faculty are required to put information in syllabi about options for students with disabilities and information on where to meet should an emergency occur during class time. Additionally, since todays students have become devotees of that Ancient Greek philosophical school of sophistry one has to specify how many paragraphs students must write for their assigned papers. It is not good enough to tell them to write enough to do the assignment because, in my ethnographic experience, many students simply want to put in the minimum effort possible in order to get a passing grade on a paper for the course. One has to spell everything out in the language of syllabic legalese

The situation regarding students and books these days, by the way, is very similar to that of students and papers. Once upon a time when I taught the second course in the chronological sequence of European History I gave students the option to read any work of European fiction after the Enlightenment they wanted to. I naively thought they would choose a book they really wanted to read. To my surprise, however, during one term in which I taught this course virtually every one of my students decided to read George Orwell's Animal Farm. I soon discovered the reason why. It was not because they had long wanted to read Orwell's famous book. It was not because they had to read it. It was not because they had an interest in 20th century autocracy. They read it, I learned, because it was the shortest book on my extensive book option list. Speaking of students and books when I was a student I had two courses during my first semester that required me to read thirteen books for each course. I loved it because reading books was for me what the intellectual life was, at least in part, about. Today it is almost impossible to assign students more than a book or two a term and even then few students crack a book unless they have to.

Given that the syllabus is a contract between professor and student (a fact that makes common student notions that syllabi can be changed in the middle of a term rather bizarre), given that the syllabus contains information about the class that is essential to a successful prosecution of the course, and given that I make every student do an assignment in the first few weeks of each term affirming that they have read the syllabus, in the legalistic atmosphere of the contemporary university one has to, one has to hypothesise about why students keep asking questions that are already answered in my syllabi. This year I decided to count up how many students asked me questions in the days after the final exam that were answered clearly in the syllabus. The result was fascinating. This term 5 students or 7% of my two US History 2 class asked me questions at the end of the term that were already answered answered in the syllabus (7% of the two classes). Two students or 3% of the two classes asked me what the total points for the class were despite the clear indication of what the total points for the class were in the syllabus (110, A=93). One of the students who wrote asking this question still didn't get it after I sent a copy of the grade breakdown from my syllabus to him or her and told him or her that extra credit was extra credit. This is just further proof that people create a reality that has little connection to realty and they won't give it up even when they are staring that reality in the face. Fascinating, Captain.

A charitable explanation for the ritualistic practise of students writing to ask me questions that have already been answered in the syllabus would be that some students are lazy. I learned about contemporary slacker student culture when I asked one of my classes why students are wearing slippers to class these days. I assumed it was because it was part of some trend probably started by some Hollywood star or some pop music celebrity. One of my students, however, said unequivocally that it was because her generation was lazy. This explanation, by the way, is consistent with the evidence of the tendency of some students to put assignments in the wrong place or in the wrong format on Blackboard and the unfortunate tendency of some students not to go to IT with Blackboard or computer problems. A more concerning and alarming explanation might be that students have problems comprehending what is written in syllabi these days. This hypothesis perhaps raises a whole host of questions including the unfortunate tendency in secondary schools these days to teach for the test. Or perhaps students are driven simply by fear and anxiety. Regardless of the reason, I find syllabus anxiety disorder truly remarkable and frankly rather frightening.

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