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.