Felker: Cut the syllabus talk short

Alex Felker

An open letter to all the faculty and staff on this chilly, wet, gray first week back:    

Dear professors, lecturers one and all — I respectfully ask of you to please contain your enthusiasm, and, as a troop, muster some restraint and stop dwelling so painfully upon your syllabi and all its minutiae. I promise your class will not implode if you do not verbally express to them up front exactly which chapters of “The Sound and the Fury” they must have read by March 7. They can manage this sort of thing themselves, and, if not, there are probably more imminent problems that’ll come up for them in the meantime.

Why not ask students to read the syllabus before ever coming to that first day of class? Would such a thing really be asking so much? And, if you think your syllabus to be so important as to not leave it in the suspect vortex of students’ free time, then why not hold a quiz on the syllabus’ more important particulars on that first day? Such would still be less miserable than the 45 minutes of near-verbatim, soul-sucking droning that plagues so many lecture halls this first week back from break.

If you cannot get the whole syllabus out of you in less than 20 or 30 minutes, something must change. There is no need for this. Say what university policies need to be verbally mentioned, say what important, pertinent details for the course that there are to be said, and then allow yourself and your students to move on with their lives. You should be able to accomplish this in a reasonable amount of time, and the campus will be a better place for it.

This past Tuesday I was witness to a great thing. It was a one-page syllabus. No, I do not exaggerate — this is no hyperbole. I am considering having it framed. I will grant it was two-sided, but this is something I will allow. It really was a work of art. There, in less than a few thousand words was all the information I could ever ask for. Everything was neatly laid out and easily digestible. I will not mention this professor’s name for the sake of propriety, but I expect good things from them. They have set the bar high.

Here’s the hardtack: We don’t need paper copies of the semester schedule. Leave that for Blackboard; this is what it was designed for. Upload to it all of the PDFs your heart could ever desire. Next, leave out the reporting of all the meaningless details. I don’t need you to verbally relate to me what percentage of my final grade will be accounted for by Assignment No. 3A. If I am in a desperate enough state to require this sort of information, I will discover it for myself in my own spare time.   

I grant that it is important to spend some time, in these first few classes, discussing the expectations you have for your students and the course itself. But there are less miserable ways to do so than what is now the status quo. Take it upon yourself, for the sake of humanity, and all that is good in this beautiful world, to keep the syllabus talk brief and the printers less busy.