Saturday, June 10, 2006

The one-size-fits-all syllabus

Rule 11: 1 through 10 don't matter

There must be a gene for archivism. I think I have it, no doubt inherited from my father. He has a basement, two garages, a large storage shed, and much of the back yard devoted to his treasures. Or junk, if you ask Mom. I fill shelves and other flat surfaces with books, magazines, folders, and papers. Lots of papers. I have over twenty years of course syllabi around here.

“Archivist” sounds so much better than “pack rat,” don't you agree?

When school is out, as it is now, I usually try halfheartedly to get my house in order. Every effort at tidying up is inevitably interrupted by the rediscovery of some precious item from the past. (Perhaps it's not an archivism gene. Perhaps it's a hunger for relics that was inculcated during my Catholic childhood.) Today was no different. While sorting the stacks into various porous categories, I found yet another cache of documents from the math department. There were meeting minutes, seniority lists, room charts, and syllabi, most of which were mine. But not all. I found the legendary one-size-fits-all syllabus, created in the forge of a late colleague's ire. I lifted up the single sheet of paper and read the famous words once again:
Mathematical Course, Procedures and Syllabus
Mr. Pxxxxx Gxxxxx

1. Textbook and material to be covered will be announced during the first class meeting.

2. Office hours will be announced during the first class meeting.

3. Attendance is mandatory.

4. Turning in homework is mandatory.

5. Excessive missed homework or excessive absences will result in the final grade lowered by one full grade.

6. Homework will not be returned. Students should make copies of their homework for their records.

7. Periodic unit examinations will be given throughout the semester and will be announced in advance. There will be at least 3 one hour test but no more than 7.

8. These exams will be corrected by the students in class.

9. A comprehensive 2 hour final exam will be given.

10. The final grade will be based on a class average basis as will any midterm grade.

11. Notwithstanding the above procedure, the instructor reserves the right to change any and all class procedures and topics discussed at any time. Students are responsible for any and all such changes as announced in class.
The document was a grainy nth-generation photocopy of a Courier typeface original. The senior colleague responsible for it had been goaded into action by the “gentle” reminders of the dean that all students were entitled to receive a syllabus on the first day of class. After decades of teaching in a style best described as extemporaneous—or maybe stream of consciousness—our colleague bridled at this administrative mandate.

His response, the eleven statements quoted above, provided the only syllabus he used for the balance of his career. Had he been thoughtful enough to omit his name and the word “mathematics” from the title, it could have served his colleagues in every department on campus. Copies did, indeed, circulate through every department on campus. Students who weren't even in any of his classes had copies, usually produced in response to their expressions of incredulity. Copies passed through many faculty offices, too.

I returned my copy of the one-size-fits-all syllabus to my collection of departmental memorabilia. I'm not sure what lesson it teaches us. In most respects, his masterpiece was the last gasp of a dying breed. My colleague was a departmental curmudgeon who seemed to regard every change in procedure as a personal affront. Sometimes I envied his supreme self-assurance, but other time I shook my head at his recalcitrance. Despite his position as a math teacher, he generated his grades in what one might charitably call a “holistic” rather than numeric way. The dean once threw his hands up in exasperation while trying to mediate a student grievance over grades when my colleague's gradebook turned out to have no numbers or averages in it, just a string of undocumented letter grades.

In many ways our colleague was a fascinating and cultured man, but one fiercely protective of his prerogatives. If he epitomized the “old school” approach, then we are probably well-served by its passing. My conclusion—once tentative but now quite firm—is that our colleague ultimately cared more for his convenience than the good of his students. He saw teaching as a special calling, but it devolved into a position of privilege. He was magisterial in his approach, but he gradually moved from the “authoritative” definition of magisterial to the sense of being overbearingly assured. Our careers overlapped during the years when he had assumed that definitively lordly aspect. That's an example I can learn from, and a progression I can strive to avoid. I must not emulate him.

Oh, and his office? A right mess, it was. Stacks of books and papers on every shelf and flat surface. That reminds me...


Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Thanks... we have a few of those around here as well, although none with as explicitly a generic syllabus as this one...

I actually have a standard set of rules some would call my syllabus. The rules are the same for each class. Before every semester I tweek the file, then I just slap a semester schedule on the front of it and hand it out. It works because I know the same rules on late stuff etc... are in effect for every class. Also, it is about 4 pages long and very detailed -- having been revised many times in response to 'challenging' student behavior.

This year I started doing a take-home quiz and things were much better in class... I've got to keep it.

Zeno said...

Thanks for the comment, ITPF. In our math department we all have boiler-plate syllabus language that we swap around, and each of us has certain standard items we like to include each semester. (The "turn your cell phone off" rule is pretty new.) My basic syllabus is now two pages long. No current syllabus, however, can match old PG's masterwork in its breathtaking ability to minimize the information provided to the student and still provide the teacher a universal escape clause like Rule 11. Most of us do, of course, include some milder version of Rule 11 to handle unforeseen circumstances.

Anonymous said...

At my school it is the convention to have numerical breakdowns of the grading schemes. One curmudgeon of a math professor distributed a syllabus that at least nodded in this direction, indicating only that the final exam would be worth greater than or equal to 50% of the total grades. It became apparent that he didn't count the homework and on the first test, despite the instruction to do only 3 out of the 5 problems, several students received scores greater than 100% by doing all 5. In the end, he presumably just made up grades anyway.

eProf2 said...

This is good stuff bringing a great deal of laughter to my day. Now, that I'm about to go back into teaching again this fall, I just might try something like the old guy's approach. Do you think I'll get tenure if I use a syllabus like his?

Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

This is why I mustn't teach.