Syllabus Tyrannus 

The decline and fall of the American university is written in 25-page course syllabi.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.

Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer

When I was an undergrad in the ’90s, there was little more exciting than the first day of class. What will my professor be like? What books will I be reading? How many papers will I have to write? Answers came readily, in the form of a tidy one-page document that consisted solely of the professor’s name and office hours, a three-sentence course description, a list of books, and, finally, a very brief rundown of the assignments (papers, exams) and their relevant dates. This was a course syllabus in 1996, and it was good.

If, like me, you haven’t been a college student since the Clinton administration—but, unlike me, you also haven’t been a professor today—then you might be equal parts impressed and aghast at what is required for a course syllabus now. Ten, 15, even 20 pages of policies, rubrics, and required administrative boilerplate, some so ludicrous (“course-specific expected learning outcomes”) that I myself have never actually read parts of my own syllabi all the way through.

The texts? The assignments? Unsurprisingly, these are still able to fit on a page or two. The meticulous explanations of our laptop policies, or why, exactly, it’s inadvisable to begin course-related emails with “heyyyyyyyyy,” or why we will not necessarily return said emails at 3:15 a.m.? A novel’s worth. Today’s college syllabus is longer than many of the assignments it allegedly lists—and it’s about as thoroughly read as an end-user license agreement for the latest update of MS Word.

As any professor can tell you—or, possibly, show you on T-shirts both clever and profane—endless syllabi result in a semester-long litany of questions whose answers are actually readily available on that most-unread of documents. Today’s ever-creative professors have been compelled to instate syllabus quizzes that a student must pass before she may turn in any assignments. My own method is to simply assign my syllabus as the course’s first reading, with the warning: “I will know if you haven’t read it.” Half of my students think I’m bluffing, so they don’t read all the way to the end, where I’ve put both sincere congratulations and a directive to email me with a question, for credit. Imagine their horror when their first grade in my course is an F for an assignment they didn’t even know existed. (Since my syllabus explains that I accept late assignments, though, the F is fleeting.)

Syllabus bloat is more than an annoyance. It’s a textual artifact of the decline and fall of American higher education. Once the symbolic one-page tickets for epistemic trips filled with wonder and possibility, course syllabi are now but exhaustive legal contracts that seek to cover every possible eventuality, from fourth instances of plagiarism to tornadoes. The syllabus now merely exists to ensure a “customer experience” wherein if every box is adequately checked, the end result—a desired grade—is inevitable and demanded, learning be damned. You want to know why, how, and to what extent the university has undergone a full corporate metamorphosis? In the words of every exasperated professor ever, “It’s on the syllabus.”

So how did this happen? Sometime between 1998, when I finished my undergrad degree and one-pagers were still standard, and now, when the average length of my academic friends’ syllabi is 15 pages, several important changes took place at this country’s colleges and universities.

First, the helicopter generation—raised on both suffocating parental pressure and the teach-to-the-test mandates of No Child Left Behind—started coming to college. Everyone needed A’s, and everyone needed to know exactly what needed to be done to get one. When that wasn’t abundantly clear, that made schools vulnerable to lawsuits.

Second, syllabi went from print to online, thus freeing the entire professoriate to capitulate to the aforementioned demands for everything from grading rubrics to the day-by-day breakdown of late assignment policies, without worrying about sacrificing trees or intimidating the class with a first-day handout they could barely lift, much less peruse in a mere 75 minutes.

Third, the skyrocketing percentage of hired-gun adjuncts—as opposed to tenure-track faculty, who have both a modicum of security and a minuscule say in university governance—meant that a substantial number of instructors were taking on courses a matter of weeks (sometimes days) before they began. Thus, they relied heavily on extensive syllabi already in existence.

And, finally, universities—especially public institutions, ever-starved of tax revenue and ever-more-dependent upon corporate partnerships and tuition—started hiring CEOs as administrators, most of whom gleefully explained that they would start running these public, nonprofit entities like businesses.

With corporatization came prioritization of the student “customer experience”: climbing walls, luxury dorms, and coursework that is transactional rather than educational. To facilitate the optimal experience for these customers, administrators began to increase oversight of their faculty, which, with an ever-adjunctifying professoriate unable to fight back, became ever easier to do. And so the instructors—wary of lawsuits and poor evaluations that would cost them their jobs—had little choice but to pass that micromanagement on to the students.

Obviously, the only real solution would be for the entire system to shake some sense into its head, like a Basset Hound coming in from a driving rainstorm. Oh, hey, the basset hound would realize, corporatized education hurts almost everyone it touches. It hurts the students who go into lifelong debt to be taught by adjuncts making $17,000 a year; it hurts the staff on forced furlough; it hurts the alumni, who learn little more than how to fulfill a meticulously circumscribed contract, and who are foisted, unprepared, upon an intransigent job market. Really, it hurts everyone but the administrators and the for-profit textbook publishers—but, of course, they run the show.

So my recommendation is something at which we intellectuals excel: a subtle war of passive aggression. Go ahead and include that admin boilerplate, but do it at the end, in six-point type, and label it “Appendix A: Boilerplate”—or, even better, “tl;dr,” since the executive vice dean in charge of micromanaging your syllabus probably won’t know what that means. Make it very clear, simply through the use of placement and typeface, what you think is important for students to read and what you don’t.

Finally, explain to your students, face-to-face, that even though a syllabus is a contract, it’s an inappropriately developed one, comprised of transparent ass-covering and bad intentions, and that any college course actually worth attending is going to begin with least some air of mystery about what you “need” to get an A. Because, you’ll explain, what you need is to learn and learn well, and if you already knew what you needed to know, you wouldn’t be in the class in the first place. The students probably won’t be paying attention, because they’ll be texting—and they won’t know they’re not allowed to, because they won’t have read the texting rules on the syllabus.