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Further reflections on syllabus guidelines

Topics/tags: Teaching, follow-ups

The other day, I ranted a bit about a sequence of proposed changes to the Faculty Handbook involving guidelines for preparing course syllabi. I don’t mind receiving guidelines as suggestions; I just mind being told that I have to follow those guidelines, particularly when I don’t agree with all of them, or find that some of them contradict what I’ve found to be successful practices. And, as I noted in that prior musing, I really don’t like hearing things described as best practices, since I always wonder best practices for who? [1].

As one might expect, there was a lot of pushback from the faculty at the meeting, not least about the vague in compliance with federal regulations in the draft handbook language. I’d raised the question about the particular regulations in advance of the meeting and others continued to raise it during the meeting. While there is agreement among the faculty and the Dean’s office that there’s a need for a clear summary of the relevant regulations, no one was able to come up with that summary at the meeting, or even to identify all of the relevant regulations. For example, the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to how we teach, in that we must make reasonable accommodations for students with documented disabilities. However, that does not mean that we have to make our accommodations policy part of our syllabus [2] to adhere to the ADA. The Higher Education Opportunity Act’s textbook information provision usually affects when we select the textbooks that appear on our syllabus, but that timing is not covered in the guidelines. Title IX can be relevant to a syllabus, mostly in terms of how we deal with Title IX incidents [3]. So, in the end, the current answer is We need to work more on documenting the relevant regulations.

More importantly, I learned a lot about some additional rationales for changing the Handbook from friends, alumni, and colleagues [4] who commented on my musing on Facebook.

One of the first things I learned was that best practices was intended to mean something more like research-informed practices or, as one person suggested, a systematic evidence-based set of recommendations. I appreciate the correction, and hope that the next version of the proposal will replace best practices with evidence-based practices or research-based practices. I also hope that the next version of the guidelines provides explicit reference to the evidence or research study [5].

More importantly, I learned that it’s important to have policies because not all faculty are responsible about creating syllabi. As one person noted,

[When I worked with a group of students on workload issues], I was shocked at how many students experienced receiving partial syllabi, few or no due dates, due dates moved earlier (later is understandable), entire books not on the syllabus assigned mid-semester, and syllabi not turned in in time to be made accessible. I thought I had a good sense of things, but apparently not. Even our students who wish to plan well cannot without complete syllabi, and it seemed surprisingly uncommon for students to have four solid syllabi. I found that extremely disappointing for an institution that values teaching as much as Grinnell does.

I’ve had more luck when I’ve worked with my Tutorial students on semester planning. Of course, it’s also been ten years since I taught Tutorial, so things may have changed. But if we have a large number of faculty who are not giving students clear guidelines on major pieces of work, it’s essential that we have policies to ensure that faculty provide those guidelines. Of course, that requires that someone in the Dean’s office read over the submitted syllabi. I’m not sure whether or not that will happen in practice.

It’s also the case that for some courses, it may not be possible to provide a full syllabus in advance. For example, one colleague discussed a course that involved a lot of collaboration with external entities, and it was not possible to set up all of those collaborations in advance. But those situations are more the exception than the rule. And, even in those cases, it should be possible to give students some sense of typical workload and major due dates.

I had suggested that we clarify how the syllabi would be used. Checking that there are due dates and such is one use beyond accreditation. But there are others. Another colleague noted that,

The Residential Learning Task Force recommended a syllabus study as one part of looking at student workload and other issues largely related to student wellness.

They also noted that the study is planned and that the proposed collection mechanism will provide the data. That makes sense to me. However, it sounds like I’m the only one who has raised the issue of limiting the use of syllabi that the Dean’s office collects [6]. I don’t plan to raise the issue again.

An alum noted that they often used syllabi not only to gauge the content and workload of a course, but also the worldview of the faculty member. I certainly subscribe to that perspective. I use custom language about accommodation to suggest that I address accommodations and adjustments as an ethical issue and not just a legal obligation. And, as I’ve noted before, I do make adjustments for students that go beyond legal accommodations. The alum also looks at attendance guidelines, policies for late work, and other similar issues. They don’t look for a particular set of policies, but rather use them to try to understand whether it’s a faculty member who tends to be lenient or one who tends to be strict, which affects how they approach the class [7].

So, where do I stand on all of this? I’d like to see a revised set of syllabus design guidelines that include clear references to the evidence for practices or the federal regulations the practices support. I’d like to see Handbook language that does not use the term best practices. I’d like clearer documentation of the related federal regulations. But the most important thing seems to be that we have policies in place to help ensure that our students get accessible, usable, and useful syllabi at the start of the semester. I’ll likely support proposed language that gets us to that place.

[1] One reader pointed me an article in McSweeney’s about best practices in academia.

[2] I include an accommodations and adjustments policy in all of my syllabi.

[3] I would hope that in this day and age, faculty would not write syllabi that interfere with students’ educational opportunities based on the gender of those students.

[4] And combinations thereof.

[5] I will admit that I want to see the references, in part, because I find that the evidence used is often gathered in a very different environment (e.g., large lecture classes or classes with auto-graders) and may not be directly applicable to what we do.

[6] Or maybe we just ran out of time.

[7] As far as I can tell, they don’t necessarily approach the two kinds of classes differently. That is, more strict policies don’t necessarily lead to more or better work. But they mean that students prioritize getting work for one class in before class for another.

Version 1.0 of 2019-11-03.