The new year brings with it the rush of resolutions, self-improvement, and promises that this year we’ll finally get our acts together. Nowhere is this truer than the college classroom. Students file in ready for a new start. Professors do, too. This month, I welcomed students with the same ritual I’ve practiced for each of the last 10 years: supplying them with a carefully crafted course syllabus to guide our time together. Despite the January of it all, to hear some of my fellow educators tell it, my students likely responded with their own ritual: ignoring the syllabus altogether.
Such routine derelictions of undergraduate duty have created a moral panic among certain sectors of the professorazzi, who fear many students are indifferent to their education. Some have even taken to burying Easter eggs within their syllabi. In December, CNN reported that a performing arts professor hid a $50 puzzle in his music seminar syllabus, available for any student who read closely enough to discover it. But the half C-note remained unclaimed the entire semester, with that particular page of the syllabus (and the others, presumably) left unread.
The story, which went viral in some circles, was meant as a lighthearted, kids-these-days scoff at campus slackers who can’t be bothered to read a document integral to their success. The professor seemed to have good intentions. But the usual pangs of disappointment and pedagogical nihilism I felt when I read it were not directed at the students—they were aimed at my colleagues. Stunts like these are not only counterproductive; they’re also a symptom of a larger problem in higher education.
In my experience, most students want to succeed and will, at the very least, give the course syllabus a cursory read. If they aren’t reading it, they have their reasons. Some students figure there’s no real benefit to reading the syllabus; some professors don’t explicitly communicate the expectation it will be read. But the biggest reason students skip such a crucial step is simple: Many syllabi are unreadable. They’re too long and clogged with opaque, administration-mandated fine print. Some are written with an eye toward a student challenging a grade—that is to say punitively, from a defensive crouch. The results, writing-wise, resemble the textual equivalent of mashed rutabaga.
Kenyon Wilson, he of the $50 Easter egg, hits on one of the biggest problems with the syllabus today in the CNN piece: “It’s analogous to the terms and conditions when you’re installing software,” he told the network. “Everyone clicks that they’ve read it when no one ever does.”
Exactly. Students skip the syllabus for the same reasons you and I click through T&Cs: They aren’t written for us. Corporations compose such documents to their own advantage, and even though we know clicking “I Agree” constitutes total submission, what choice do we have? The power dynamic’s the same in too many syllabi. Why wouldn’t students see them for what they are—blunt tools of course administration—rather than what they could be?
These are actual sentences that preceded the $50 clue in the offending syllabus: “Consistent with the Faculty Senate Policy on Covid Absences, attendance is an inseparable function of course learning objectives. As a result, skill-based courses in music may be exempt from Covid-related accommodations as a progression in skills must be obtained across the semester to be successful in these courses.” For whom, you might ask, is this written? A student? A human? The sentence meant to send students to the $50 wasn’t much better.
Burying a $50 clue in your syllabus doesn’t make you a bad professor. But the stunt highlights some of higher education’s worst assumptions about students, assumptions that serve as barriers to teaching and learning. Beginning the semester by scolding your students for not reading a lumpy mix of policy and admin jargon establishes a relationship based on an insidious premise: These people don’t want to learn. Nothing, given all the obstacles today’s students face, could be further from the truth.
Research shows that syllabi not only set up expectations for a class, but are usually the first introduction to the professor. In other words, bad ones can create and perpetuate bad relationships. The cumulative effect? We fail, in all senses of the word, the students who most need our help. Certain students already possess the necessary savvy to navigate higher ed’s “hidden curriculum,” those implicit rules, conventions, and weird cultural norms that seem natural to insiders but are utterly incomprehensible to everyone else. But what about the other students who are questioning whether they belong in college? Too often we reinforce what they may suspect—that they lack the necessary skills or insider knowledge required for success. And that their professor has no interest in teaching them these things.
No longer are most colleges made up of middle-class 18-to-20-year-olds who’ve stepped directly from well-funded high schools into the college classroom. The reality of higher education has changed, as have the people we serve. “Nontraditional” and first-generation students—those who are older, work full time, take classes part time, who are the first in their families to attend college—now make up the majority in most public institutions and community colleges. For many of our students, when they step on campus, they’re stepping into a foreign culture, one with opaque and counterintuitive languages and norms. Assuming these students don’t want to learn—rather than assuming they might need extra guidance—not only entrenches fundamental inequities in higher ed, but it undermines what should be our mission: helping students better their economic prospects and intellectual lives.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Aaron S. Richmond, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, is one of many who’ve worked on making syllabi less focused on the professor or institution and more centered on what should be its primary audience: students. His work has found that a “learner-centered syllabus” creates more useful and collaborative relationships between students and instructors. Students perceive instructors whose syllabi are “learner-centered” as better teachers and people with whom they have more rapport.
This starts with ditching the negative assumptions about students and starting from a place of trust. Assume, says Richmond, that students want to succeed. Then show them how. The syllabus should make explicit the details of higher education’s “hidden curriculum.” How many students don’t want to bother their professors during “office hours,” because the term implies the professor is busy? A lot, it turns out. A syllabus doesn’t have to be poetry, but it shouldn’t rival terms and conditions in its inhumanity. A learner-centered syllabus should have the feel of a text written by a human being for a group of human beings. Tell your students what they’ll learn, and how you’ll do it together.
Will this induce 100 percent of students to curl up with a syllabus and a cup of tea (or a White Claw)? No. But we are competing for students’ attention, just as our attention is likewise up for grabs—don’t think professors aren’t zoned out on their phones in department meetings or scrolling Twitter on the other side of Zoom squares. To pretend otherwise is to ignore reality. Worse, it ignores our students and their shot at a better life through the very thing that, despite growing cynicism, both students and faculty value and believe in: higher education. If what we’re teaching can transform students’ lives—if we believe in our larger mission as educators and not simply state-subsidized, on-the-job trainers for future employers—why wouldn’t we make the map to success as legible as possible for our students?