Skip to main content

Syllabus guidelines

Topics/tags: Rants, academia, long

At tomorrow’s Faculty Meeting, we are scheduled to vote on some changes to the Faculty Handbook, including some changes to a short section that deals with course syllabi. What are the changes? Let’s start with the current statement, which is taken from Part One: The Academic Organization of the College, Section IV: Faculty Duties and Responsibilities, Subsection A: Teaching, Subsubsection 5: Course Syllabi, and reads as follows.

Each faculty member should prepare a short syllabus for each course the faculty member is teaching. Copies should go to the department chair and to the students enrolled in the course. [1]

What changes are we being requested to approve [3]? Three of them. First, the word short is being eliminated. Second, copies are now going to the Dean’s office, rather than to the department chair. Third, we are now explicitly asked to pay attention to a recent set of syllabus guidelines that were prepared by the Dean’s office.

I have a variety of short notes about syllabi in my musing sketchbook. None pertain directly to this motion or the guidelines. If I recall correctly, most were spurred by articles and discussions in Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. But I’m not moving forward on those notes right now. Since we’re voting tomorrow, it seems appropriate to reflect a bit on these three changes and on the associated guidelines.

I do not oppose the removal of the word short from the guidelines. In fact, since I tend to write longer syllabi, to the extent that I’ve even handed out a hundred-or-so-page syllabus to my Tutorial students [4], I strongly support the change. We haven’t been given the rationale for the removal. However, given the large number of syllabus components suggested by the guidelines, I’m not sure that it’s possible to meet those guidelines and to keep the syllabus short.

What about the second change, which changes who receives our syllabus? We’ve been told that the requirement is there because our accreditors [5] should have ready access to our syllabi. That makes some sense. In assessing an institution, you want to be able to see what the classes are like. Should we make that purpose clear in the Handbook? I originally thought not. However, as I looked around the Interweb, I saw that some institutions explicitly indicate that accreditation is the only purpose that the syllabi will be used for.

How else would an institution use a syllabus? At some points in the history of this country, they might have used them to ensure that faculty were not taking an inappropriate stance on material, such as supporting a socialist agenda [7]. I expect that some faith-based institutions expect faculty members to follow particular viewpoints. I suppose that some institutions might data mine syllabi to find patterns, such as commonly assigned books. And some might even use them as the basis of online courses taught by other faculty.

Should we limit how the institution uses our syllabi? Part of me suggests that it’s safer to limit these uses. But the rest of me notes that I post my syllabi to the public Web, which means that they are available for whatever uses the institution would like to make of them.

Should I raise the question of syllabus use at the Faculty meeting? I suppose it will depend on how much of a curmudgeon I am at the time.

My biggest concern is with the third change, which adds a reference to the Dean’s office’s syllabus guidelines. The first suggested revision was particularly concerning.

Each faculty member should prepare a syllabus for each course the faculty member is teaching, following the Dean’s guidelines for syllabi. Copies should go to the Dean’s office and to the students enrolled in the course. [9]

Why is that change concerning? Because it says we have to follow the Dean’s guidelines. As far as I can tell, that violates faculty members’ academic freedom. It also gives the Dean’s office way too much power to change what those guidelines say. At the meeting, I learned that not all the faculty had even seen the guidelines [12].

Where are the guidelines? They aren’t in the list of faculty resources on GrinCo. They aren’t on the Dean’s Support for teaching page on GrinCo. There is one document entitled Syllabus Guidelines at and another, quite similar looking, document at SharePoint indicates that the former was viewed 25 times and the latter was viewed 23 times. Neither document indicates that it is what the proposal calls The Dean’s guidelines for syllabi. And nothing about them is on our public site [15].

It didn’t help that one of the Associate Deans described the guidelines as best practices. Given my recent experience with the use of the term at Grinnell, one should always ask Best practices for who? [16]. Changes to our insurance that negatively affect couples who both work for the College? A best practice, but primarily in terms of controlling costs. In terms of supporting and retaining staff, not so much. Firing the staff member at the bookstore with the deepest knowledge of books, and doing so without either (a) consulting with the Instructional Support Committee, who is supposed to have purview over the bookstore, or (b) reflecting on the broader purpose of the bookstore on campus? Again, likely a best practice for cost containment, but not for morale or for the use of the bookstore as a public academic resource. And certainly not a best practice for making sure that long-term employees are supported and valued. Building a free-standing desk for an Academic Support Assistant by a large heater and on a staircase landing that is likely to be heavily trafficked? I guess no one described that as a best practice.

Whoops. Didn’t mean to go into full-on rant mode. But I really hate the term best practices.

To help myself calm down, I’ll insert the current proposed language for the change to the Handbook.

Each faculty member should prepare a syllabus for each course the faculty member is teaching, in compliance with federal regulations with attention to the Dean’s guidelines for best practices. Copies should go to the Dean’s office and to the students enrolled in the course.

That’s certainly better. I appreciate attention to rather than following. The former suggests that we should pay attention, but does not require us to follow them exactly. The latter does. I’m not sure about the structure of that first sentence. I’d like to see an and before with attention.

So, what do the guidelines say about good practices? They start with some background. I appreciate the statement at the end of that background.

Several aspects of a well-designed syllabus relate to issues of compliance (accommodations and workload), but this Syllabus Design Guidelines document is not a statement of policy. [18]

After that, we get a checklist. The second and third points already raise some concerns. Let’s see.

Learning outcomes: Measurable goals are a central feature of a course; consult departmental and College-wide learning outcomes

Grading: Graded course elements clearly marked with due dates, weight within the final grade, and connection to learning outcomes; workload appropriate for the credit

What don’t I like about these two points? For learning outcomes, I dislike the term measurable. While I acknowledge that many learning outcomes are measurable, as I’ve noted before, I’m not sure that many of the most important learning outcomes are measurable, or at least not quantifiable. What kinds of outcomes are not measurable? Well, the College just had us take a faculty survey that, among other things, asked about our responsibility to help students develop their spirituality and their moral perspective. While I don’t find myself responsible for the former, I do consider the latter part of what I should do as a faculty member [20]. But would I measure moral development? Almost certainly not. Here’s another. At the most recent Science Teaching and Learning Group [21], we discussed how we help students to think and act more independently about their learning. Can we really measure how well students have learned how to learn? I suppose we might develop a complicated instrument, or we could just ask students. But I’m not sure that such measurement is necessary.

So, while measurable outcomes may be a best practice for, say, bean counters, it may not be as good a practice for students and teachers interested in less tangible, but more important, outcomes. I might even go so far as to say that the measurable outcomes of my courses are the ones students are most likely to forget. Think back to your college days. Are the things that faculty measured most important to you, or are things like study habits, a passion for a subject, or a new way of looking at the world more important?

What about that third bullet point? I certainly agree that a syllabus should list all the work expected of students and the due dates for that work. When I teach Tutorial, I rely on that information to help my students plan their semesters and to look ahead for trouble spots. But connection to learning outcomes? Is that necessary? Is it even good? What is the connection of an exam or quiz to a learning outcome? Aren’t such devices more intended as a way to assess outcomes? And isn’t figuring out the connection of other work in a class to learning outcomes a skill students should develop? I know that I regularly ask my students to take a moment to reflect on why I’ve asked them to do something. Won’t they learn more from that reflection than from me telling them?

I suppose I shouldn’t be so critical. Most of the guidelines are good. I particularly appreciate statements about accessibility, techniques for inclusivity, and the suggestion that we should [c]learly communicate high expectations for student success and project confidence that students can meet your expectations through hard work.

Nonetheless, when you start with measurable outcomes as a primary goal of the syllabus, I want to make sure that you’re not going to force me to follow an educational philosophy that is much different than my own.

I wonder how Monday’s discussion will go. Fortunately, I expect that most of the emphasis will be on Handbook changes, rather than the particulars of the guidelines. And, even though I hate the term best practices, I likely won’t object to it.

Postscript: One more snarky comment: If these guidelines were last updated before Dean Harris was hired, let alone before she started, how are they the Dean’s guidelines for best practices? In fact, given that she’s spoken about the value of transformative knowledge that is difficult to measure [22], I’d love to see the guidelines that she would write, rather than the guidelines we currently have.

Postscript: I very much appreciate the hard work that went into our syllabus document. And I know that some people I respect greatly have a very different philosophy on course outcomes than I do. I should be clear that I have no objections to the document itself. Rather, my concern is that the proposed language would have imposed it on us.

[1] Grinnell College. Grinnell College Faculty Handbook. Last Revision 9/16/19. Approved June 2019. Found online at [2]. p. 17.

[2] If I recall correctly, we were told a few years ago that we should not rely on the continued availability of I wonder what happens to all the documents there if it goes away.

[3] Since neither the agenda nor the proposal indicates who is proposing to change this part of the Handbook, I’ve been forced to use the passive voice.

[4] Over two-thirds of the syllabus consisted of the assignments for the semester because I thought it would be useful for the students to see them as we started the course.

[5] The North Central Association (NCA [6]) of the Higher Learning Commission (HLC).

[6] No, not the NCAA. That’s a completely separate organization.

[7] Just in case it isn’t clear, I do not consider it inappropriate [8].

[8] I am not quite comfortable with the double negative in this sentence. However, I could not find a better way to phrase it. I consider it appropriate is not the same as I do not consider it inappropriate. It’s not worth my time to find a better way to phrase the concept.

[9] Grinnell College. Agenda for Faculty Meeting of Monday, October 7, 2019. Available online at [10,11].

[10] I know that I normally complain that we hide things behind a password wall on SharePoint. For the case of the agendas for and minutes of faculty meetings, it seems appropriate to limit access.

[11] Why does my Web browser try to load information from so many sites when loading this document? I didn’t track all of them, but I saw,, and faculty

[12] It should not surprise my readers that I read the early drafts of these guidelines when they were first released and raised some concerns [14].

[14] Nope, not telling.

[15] I apologize for acting like a broken record about this issue. However, I think we owe it to the broader community to share documents like the guidelines with the broader community.

[16] Or is that Best practices for whom? I think not.

[17] Grinnell College. Agenda for Faculty Meeting of Monday, November 4, 2019. Not yet available online. Will likely be linked from

[18] Grinnell College. Syllabus Design Guidelines. Last updated 7/24/2018. Included in the Agenda for the Faculty Meeting of Monday, November 4, 2019. See the prior end note for more details.

[19] Why is it that aspell tells me to change endnote to end note and Grammarly tells me to change end note to "endnote?

[20] Thanks mom. I’m sorry I didn’t agree when you first suggested this.

[21] One of my favorite faculty development activities at Grinnell.

[22] More precisely, Operating as a faculty member for 17 years in a non-self-evident field such as art history made me an advocate for knowledge that is not easily explained in either its iterative content nor its deliberative process, but is transformative in its connections and experiences. [23]

[23] Harris, Anne. (Wednesday, August 28, 2019). Dean’s Comments at Faculty meeting. Available online in the minutes of that meeting at

Version 1.0 of 2019-11-03.