Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!


Jessica Watkins's picture


To all teachers, teacher assistants and professors: I feel for you.

As someone who has stood on the sidelines of syllabus creation for the majority of my career as a student I can honestly say that the amount of effort and stress that goes into what looks like a simple piece of computer paper is not appreciated nearly enough. Like most students, I am guilty of judging a class by its syllabus. Syllabi allow the perfect opportunity to quickly skim over the impending doom that is a literature, history or political science class and make a snap judgment about the professor and his or her taste in reading.

Case in point: which is easier to do?

A)    Pick up the syllabus on the first day of class, turn to your closest classmate and contort your face into one of disgust while “whispering” something like “She’s making us read Moby Dick???” and glaring at the professor.

B)    Pick up the syllabus on the first day of class, actually read the whole thing without once turning to the person next to you to complain, and resolve to make your way through Moby Dick—no matter how dense it is or how many times you have to remind yourself that you are a “strong Bryn Mawr woman” for comfort.

If you picked option B, chances are you’re a Moby Dick fan or a saint. Realistically, hasty judgment makes its way into the classroom at the worst of times, such as on the first day of class when impressions are quickly made and courses even more quickly dropped. The amount of learning lost to opinions formed on a first-glance basis is undoubtedly huge.

Thus, there lies danger in a syllabus. Its sweet simplicity may only be appreciated from afar; once looked at closely, its entirety may be judged on a few words that do not serve as a reflection of the class or its intent. However, this is not the fault of the syllabus. It did not choose its contents; it had no say in which phrases it was to be dressed in for its initial, important appearance. It was handed an ill-tailored suit and forced out onto the catwalk, only to be ripped apart by the opinions of others and not appreciated for the beauty that lies beneath its shabby garb.

Nor is it the fault of the author of the syllabus. After all, there are only so many ways a professor can make a one-page item appealing while still bearing the foreboding words Moby Dick on its face.

There is only one suspect left in this lineup, and that is the student. I realize that I represent this population of judgmental learners. However, I also realize that judgment will inevitably slip into any situation where people are involved—and a classroom is a prime example of a social situation. This is not necessarily because students are bad people, or because we are intolerant after years of clawing our way out of wordy, never-ending texts. In fact, snap judgments can be argued as evolutionary adaptations present in all human beings (not just frustrated college students!) meant to spring us from dangerous situations in a matter of seconds. But no matter how deeply it is embedded into our subconscious, quick judgment remains something that, while excellent for helping to run away from dinosaurs and lions, may not serve as much good in creating an open-minded classroom atmosphere.

In light of this it would make sense to rid the learning environment of syllabi completely. But if this were to happen, would classroom tensions between student and professor (or even fellow students) cease? Every problem is multi-faceted, including the problem of hasty judgment, so it seems illogical to think that removing one portion of the problem would solve it entirely. However, I welcome responses to this post that challenge that notion.

Literary Kinds sought to solve the problem, if only partially. Instead of handing out a syllabus on the first day of class, the professor informed us that she had only planned material for the first quarter—the second quarter was completely up in the air, and it would be a collaborative effort on the part of the professor and students to design a curriculum for use after spring break. Most of us were intrigued, and possibly a little skeptical. The syllabus we had all grown to love to hate was nowhere to be found, but were still constantly judging. Is this professor laid back enough to actually allow us to design the class? Is it because she is challenging us, or because she is lazy? Will she really have that little control over what she teaches when it comes time to make a decision?

To my knowledge, none of us had written a syllabus before (please correct me if I am wrong). How hard could it be? We could all agree to pick a few books that we enjoyed, slap them down on a piece of paper and call it a day.

Wrong. Very wrong. The creation of our syllabus took what seemed like grueling hours working in small groups, then coming back together as one large group only to disagree on themes, motifs and multiple other aspects of the curriculum. There were mystery lovers who just wanted to read Sherlock Holmes, and there were others who jumped on the chance to suggest fan fiction. After one class period the only thing that came out of our collaboration was the outline of a sketch of a theme, and certainly more of the judgment that was present in the beginning. Now we judged each other—our opinions were out in the open, floating through the air and stuck to a chalkboard in the front of the room. In the past, when syllabi had been written for us, it was expected that a person was taking a certain class because they had chosen it with full knowledge of what they were getting themselves into. Those who loved Sherlock Holmes would take a class on it, and those who loved fan fiction would take a course on the digital humanities. But here we were faced with a dilemma. Here we had a group of students whose interests varied intensely and might never come up with a coherent syllabus that satisfied everyone while still encompassing an overarching theme. 

It was about this time that I began to feel for all the teachers I had previously judged based on their curriculum. As I sat there, debating with my group over whether or not to present an idea for a curriculum based on the theme of villainy throughout time and different media, I could not help but worry about what my classmates would think and how draining it must be to write one of these things every year for multiple classes. Here I was, writing the only syllabus I will probably ever have to write, and all I could do was stare at the clock wishing for it to be over. 

Even though our class eventually came to a partial agreement about the syllabus (to this day it is still changing), I emerged from the event with a sort of “syllaphobia.” I think syllabus-writing is an incredible feat, and those who consistently do it (or put up with it?) are to be applauded. The experience forced me to acknowledge that a syllabus may not always be a platform on which a professor can place his or her favorite texts—rather, it is something that is to be crafted with many more than just one person in mind. It is not always a selfish endeavor, as so many might believe, but a selfless one.

I am interested in learning about the experience of other groups designing their own syllabi; I believe that comparing and contrasting the roadblocks hit by different classes would help to make the syllabus-writing process go more smoothly in the future, and possibly make it a more enjoyable one. I am also interested in hearing the stories of angst and frustration from individual professors who have had to write their syllabi in solitary silence; would they rather that their students “take over,” or would they rather continue to plod through the task at hand because of a combination of pride and fear of the unknown? Is it possible that one day judgment may only be significantly reduced when “teacher” and “student” are synonymous? And just how long will it take for pride to move over and let innovation step in?


Image Source:



Anne Dalke's picture


as I said in class this week,  the gift of your neologism delights me, because I am a convinced "syllaphilic," who has both reveled for decades in the solitary pleasure of dreaming up new syllabi (unhampered by the reality of the students who will follow its instructions!), and more recently risked the experiment of doing that dreaming in the company of my students, whom I have invited to be co-constructors in the open-ended exploration that is our shared course.

So it's of very particular interest for me to get a testimony from someone I've brought into my dream space (echoes of Alice in Wonderland: was she in the Red King's dream, or was he in hers?). You diagnose the condition of "syllaphobia" in two versions: both the quick judgment entailed in being given a syllabus that is a "done deal" by the time you arrive on the first day of class; and the even-more distressing experience (I take it) of having to co-construct such a document w/a group of differently-minded classmates.

Where I'd be interested to hear you go further with this would be to venture beyond what you offer here -- a testimony to your own experience -- into the larger, more generalized field of (no surprise!) genre study. Just what sort of "literary kind" is a syllabus? What conventional forms does it take? What is its ideal form, what the variants? What is its use-value? How has it evolved? How might it?

You describe your own revised sense of the form -- from a platform for a professor's "favored texts" to a more "selfless" crafting that tries to include student interests, but you leave out entirely what I'd say is the primary driver in syllabus construction: the professor's attempt to use it to showcase and organize what is most important in a particular field of study. Not her own favorite texts; not those her students might like, but rather what an adept in her discipline deems significant, even essential, for a novice in that area of knowledge to cover.

What happens, then, to the "literary kind" that is a syllabus, if it begins to be co-constructed by students, re-figured en route during the semester in response to their own interests? What happens in particular to the ideals of "coverage" and "expertise"? What difference does it make if the document is put together collaboratively by a group whose members are not familiar w/ the field, rather than by an individual who is, and who is attempting to use the syllabus to represent that field to the best of her knowledge? Is this akin to the shift in knowledge-making that (ostensibly) is afoot in blogging, where  the response of the audience plays a role in what is written? How applicable is the learning theory of constructivism (which you discussed in your last paper), when the "syllabubble" that is the professor's private dreaming (or her attempt to represent the dreams of her area of expertise) goes public?

Be sure not to miss the exploration one of your classmates made of these same questions:
see nk0825's Dear Academia...

Syllable--> Syllabub --> Syllabus --> Syllaship --> ???

[a. AF. sillable = OF. sillabe (12th c.), mod.F. syllabe,
ad. L. syllaba, a. Gr. to take, put, or bring together


Syllabub (n.): A traditional English dessert, popular from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, made from rich milk or cream seasoned with sugar and lightly curdled with wine or cider.

Syllabus (n.):
A traditional piece of paper, popular the week before the semester begins, made from words seasoned by a lightly curdled brain (mine). --
Ellen Samuels, University of Wisconsin-Madison