Monday, March 10, 2008

Feature creep and the contemporary syllabus

From Paula Walsey's "The Syllabus Becomes a Repository of Legalese," in The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 14, 2008):

"[T]he syllabus gets longer and longer each time students think up something new that you wouldn't necessarily want them doing," says Susan R. Boettcher, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

More than a third of her nine-page syllabus for a course on the Reformation is taken up by explanations of her policies on attendance, laptop usage, and how to round grades, and her availability to write letters of recommendation.

Her detailed policy on scholastic dishonesty includes a clause stating that "the rules of academic honesty also apply to extra credit." It was an addition that she made after a judicial board overturned her recommendation that a student fail her course for plagiarizing an extra-credit paper. Her syllabus had not explicitly stated that students could fail for cheating on extra-credit projects.
I'm both impressed and horrified by the nerve of the student who challenged Professor Boettcher's decision. As I point out when I teach the Inferno, plagiarists would likely end up in the tenth bolgia of the eight circle of Dante's hell, reserved for falsifiers (alchemists, counterfeiters, perjurers, impersonators), those who tamper with the integrity of things, words, and persons.

No link: most items in the Chronicle are available only to subscribers. But here's Wikipedia's article on creeping featurism.

Related posts
"Extra credit?"
Paper chase

comments: 4

Geo-B said...

My syllabi are like geologic core samples, where each clause relates to some bone-headed stunt someone pulled. It says in there that essays must be written in standard paragraphs. Once, about 20 years ago when I marked a student off for failing to divide his work into paragraphs, he grumbled, "Yea, and I guess in the next class we're going to have to do it that teacher's way." I was actually flattered that he thought that paragraphing was a personal quirk I had come up with.

Michael Leddy said...

I'm laughing, George, because I'm always telling my students, "It's not because I want it that way; anyone who knows something about writing an essay would tell you the same thing." E.g., to have a thesis statement.

G said...

I haven't taught for very long, I'm still a grad student and TA, but I find this happening to my syllabi, too. It's disappointing and frustrating in some ways because it seems to put me in an "us vs. them" situation before the term even gets underway. I wonder if anyone has ever looked at syllabus writing as a kind of pedagogical (or rhetorical?) genre. Not so much for specific content as perhaps success of the document. It seems like syllabi have to walk a fine line between being inviting for the student (at least enough to keep them from dropping the class out of intimidation) and still maintaining its regulatory nature.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for reading and commenting, Geiar.

About rhetoric: I find that I'm always thinking about syllabi in terms of tone, and I find myself moving away from wit to plainness. About attendance, my syllabi used to say "You should attend class as often as I do," a line that I borrowed (with acknowledgment) from a syllabus of the poet Ted Berrigan. Now I say "Be here, on time, every time. Students who miss class will find it very difficult to do the work of the course." I think plainness (without terse severity) works better. Wit, I'm afraid, is often lost.