Irrational Exuberance!

Why Was The Syllabus Born?

January 28, 2008. Filed under education

Recently I had an interesting article referred my way by my undergraduate advisor. Although a bit flowery with its prose, Death to the Syllabus! by Mano Singham makes an interesting argument: that professors should abandon stiffling course syllabi, and replace their immaculately constructed prescriptions of punishments and rewards with professional judgement1.

Its a tempting proposition for anyone who has been in a university classroom recently, where the students are disinterested, and professors struggle to squeeze enthusiasm from stones. Lets consider a few of the article's arguments. Starting with the provided explanation for why teachers use a syllabus.

Dr. Singham suggests that college teachers are resorting to syllabi because they feel clearly regulated carrots and sticks are the only effective way to motivate modern students2. The other suggested explanations relate to the concept that the legalistic syllabi is a "legally enforceable contract" which--if followed precisely--frees the professors and administrators from two exceptionally modern dilemas: thinking and lawsuits.

To these two explanations I would add at three others, all of which--for what its worth--have good intentions. The first is that syllabi are used as a tool to provide a reliable guarantee of knowledge for a student that has passed a specific course. The modern university system is based on prerequisites courses serving as springboards for higher level courses, and the sylabbi are used as intermediate bean poles to ensure the students' growth is compatable with the curriculum devised by the school3.

My second added explanation is that having a syllabi allows professors to plan their classes more effectively, and increase the ease of teaching multiple sections of the same class. Syllabi are a tool for making the job of overextended professors easier.

And the third explanation is that syllabi provide a safety net against inept or inexperienced educators. A favored anecdote of mine is about how doctors used to be educated: they put the young trainees in teaching hospitals and they made mistakes and killed people until they finally learned how to practice medicine. This is often how young professors learn to teach. These young professors are overwhelmed with their new teaching responsibilities, and they turn to overplanning and organization to help make sense of their job. Department heads want to ensure that these classes taught by new professors don't interfere with the logical progression of courses in their curriculum, and so they provide the new teachers with syllabi which they are encouraged to follow4.

There are a wide variety of explanations for why one might want to use syllabi, and what falls upon us is to consider the value of the these explanations, and determine what role syllabi should play in college schooling. The article's final, compromising and concialiatory, conclusion is that

Completely abandoning a syllabus may not be possible for everyone. What replaces the controlling syllabus will undoubtedly depend on the subject matter, size of the class, nature of the institution, and the like, and there can be no universally prescriptive solutions. What should be universal, however, is the goal of moving away from an authoritarian classroom.

This conclusion leaves me plagued with questions, but most of them boil down to this one: What is the purpose of the modern university complex? I see two answers. One of them feels good, but the other maps far more clearly onto relics of the system like curriculum, certifications, and syllibi. The answer we want to believe is that the complex's aim is to educate, but we must acknowledge that the system survives by providing value to wealthy corporations and business. As is always the case, survival has trumped good intentions, and education has slipped into a secondary role to ranking students on their ability and willingness to follow instruction precisely5.

The value of syllabus to education is indeed questionable, but the value to a business evaluating students is quite high. When comparing the value of two substances, you try to hold everything constant, and thus the syllabus is a tool for limiting the efficiency of individual teachers on the produced graduated. An artifical ceiling and floor to the quality of classes is not a side effect of implementing syllabi, it seems very much an intentional consequence.

While trying to evaluate the role of the syllabus in college school, we need to keep in mind that the syllabus is simply one result of the mutually paracitic relationship between colleges, universities and businesses. Removing syllabi, or at least relaxing their hold on minutae, is a good step towards sneaking education back into the university classroom, but we must endeavour for it to walk in through the front door.

  1. I should note that my first draft of this article began a bit differently:

    How do you begin reading an article whose first paragraph is

    It is time to declare war on the traditional course syllabus. If there is one single artifact that pinpoints the degradation of liberal education, it is the rule-infested, punitive, controlling syllabus that is handed out to students on the first day of class.

    I was tempted to give up and quit before I even reached its arguments, but I'm glad I was able to overlook the over-aggressive word choice and move forward.

  2. This point of view permeates the article, but is suggested effectively enough by this quote:

    I recently attended a conference of college teachers. One of the sessions, which had an overflow crowd, promised to provide a stress-free method for “managing” students—an odd word choice that presumes students are like employees and we their bosses. Soon into the session, it became clear that the presenter’s idea of being “stress-free” was to create a set of rules so detailed that everything about assessing students could be quantified on a micro level. The presenter advocated an intricate structure of points and penalties to ensure that every possible excuse a student might present for not meeting a requirement could be dealt with by invoking the appropriate rule, thus avoiding having to make judgments that might be challenged by a student.

  3. In fact, it seems that the overall curriculum is a meta-syllabus with its own legal cruelties, and that each individual syllabus is merely a mechanism for maintaing the curriculum. The logical conclusion of the arguments in Death to the Syllabus! seems to be disbanding of curriculums with the professional judgement of individual teachers. If the purpose of the modern university systems was education, then this wouldn't be impossible, but since its primary purpose has become catagorizing individuals for consumption by companies, it seems clear that escaping curriculums is not feasible under the current system.

    Thus the university system, which has maintained its flexibility by forcing schools underneath them (from preschool up to high school) to judge with inflexible exams and to teach to national tests, find themselves abused by business above them just as they abuse the dependent schools below.

  4. And this is an argument I sympathize with from both sides. One course I took at my school had its primary instructor replaced with a graduate student at the last moment, and it was quite the catastrophy for everyone involved. On one hand the graduate student was overwhelmed, and on the other hand the students were beyond frustrated. I think a clear syllabus would have helped mitigate the damage. That said, it seems that a syllabus adds both a floor and a ceiling to the quality of a course, and weighing the security of the floor against the constraint of the ceiling may be beyond the scope of this discussion.

    Oh, as for the other side, for the past six months I have been the primary English teacher for twenty-one different classes of elementary students from 1st to 6th grade, and I have not infrequently longed for a syllabus that could help make sense of the madness. Being thrown into education without any training is not a simple process.

  5. This reminds me of the application process for the JET Program, where the confusing application form was considered part of the admission process. That is to say that anyone who didn't correctly follow the indepth rules for the form was disqualified. The ability to precisely follow arbitrary rules is a highly valued one in this day and age.