Friday, March 7, 2014

Syllabus as Contract

I'm working on an essay about the corporate language in higher ed as a followup to the big response I got to this post on EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE in a job advertisement for a Renaissance English professor.

One paragraph of my draft currently reads:
Take the syllabus. Many faculty (in my experience) and some teaching or student-resource centers refer to the syllabus as a contract. This makes sense as a tactic to teach students to, first of all, read the syllabus, and second to try and create a sense of reciprocal obligation. In the contract, both sides are obligated to hold to its terms. The syllabus-as-contract can function defensively, protecting faculty from lawsuits or disciplinary action from students upset about their grades. In my experience, students actually treat syllabi more as End User License Agreements (EULAs) – something for which one glances at the first page, clicks “agree to terms,” and moves on to the product without reading any of the document.
I then go on to talk about learning-centered syllabi as better for the professor and the student, and why, and how using the business model of contract gets in the way of learning, and in fact gets in the way of the product we are actually selling: a well-structured opportunity to learn and to earn meaningful (hopefully) credentials.

Below I offer a quick sampling of online texts on the syllabus as contract, each using it as a positive metaphor. There is an equally vast, and perhaps more current, array of texts on the syllabus that explicitly reject that metaphor, but that's a subject for another post. Some of these links are aimed at faculty, some graduate student teachers, and some at undergrads.

I'll offer just a few comments at the end and please note, these are pulled out of context intentionally. No criticism of the specific posts is intended. I'm just interested in how the language is being used. Follow the links for the full context.
  • On the Cutting Edge - Professional Development for GeoScience FacultyA detailed syllabus gives students a sense of the nature of the course, what they will be expected to do in the course, and how their performance will be assessed. In many cases, the syllabus is viewed as a contract between you and the students. Whether considered a legal contract or not, a syllabus should be clear about policies and procedures related to the course. Some institutions have specific requirements regarding what should be included on the syllabus.
  • The Purpose of a Syllabus (Parkes and Harris, 2002): The first purpose of a syllabus -- either explicitly or implicitly - is to serve as a contract between the instructor and the student ... Like any contract, the syllabus serves to set forth what is expected during the term of the contract - typically a semester - and to guide the behaviors of both parties.
Note - This is a good piece that weighs many models of syllabus development. It's more of a review essay.
  • General Counsel at Hampton College - Constructing Legally Sound SyllabiRemember, even though the courts do not view a syllabus as a legal document- it is safe for you to view it as a contract. View your syllabus as an agreement between you and the students. If it is necessary to make changes, do so only to benefit the student.
  • Cengage LearningThe syllabus is like a contract between the instructor and the student. It is also sometimes used by the registrar to determine if a transfer course can be considered an equivalent to the course being taught at the new school. When considering these two important purposes of the syllabus, there are certain items that need to be included. Let’s begin with the essential information for the syllabus. Remember we are considering the syllabus to be a contract between the instructor and the student.
  • From a bio prof at Vassar: "Your Syllabus is a Contract" Why are the contract details important? Think back to last semester. Did you have a student who turned things in late routinely or asked for extensions on assignments the night before they were due? Did your syllabus have a clear policy about late work, about extensions? If so, did you abide by your course policies? What about assignment due dates? Did you change due dates routinely? Why? A well thought-out course syllabus is a key ingredient to a successful course. This contract you make with the students will give them clear expectations, both what you plan to do and how you plan to do it AND what they need to do to be successful in your course.
  • UMN Disability Services: Believe it or not, the syllabus for each class you take at the University is your passport for success. It is a contract of sorts and is filled with valuable information. By staying enrolled in a class, you are indicating that you have read the syllabus, understand what you need to do to be successful in that class, and accept the terms of this agreement. But like reading any other document, it helps to have guidelines to understand the information you find in a syllabus.
  • A syllabus guide to Graduate Teaching at University of Nebraska - Lincoln: It establishes class policies, assignments and deadlines. Because the syllabus is a written document and it is retained by the student, a syllabus can eliminate misunderstandings and clarify policies, thus reducing student confusion and the incidence of the allegation, "You never told us…" Think of your syllabus as a contract between you and each student. You expect each student to abide by the guidelines put forth, and promise to extend earned rewards at the end of the course. Students expect that the guidelines put forth will not change mid-course.
  • "Tomorrow's Professor" from the CTLE at Stanford: As an agreement or contract defining mutual obligations between instructor and students, your syllabus also speaks for the college and university. "You should realize that this fact gives you responsibilities but also gives you protection against complaints or challenges to your teaching. For example, the conditions, goals, and requirements you state enable (department chairs and academic administrators) to support your decisions on grades, teaching methods, readings, and topics of inquiry. That is only possible, of course, if you and the administration (and the students) have a record of what you promised and planned, and if your syllabus conforms broadly to program goals and policies" (SU Project Advance, 1995). You will need to be familiar with institutional policies regarding attendance, examinations, drop/adds, course withdrawals, learning disabilities, and academic integrity. Equipped with an understanding of the myriad ways a learning-centered syllabus can function, you can begin to use it in your course.
So there's a bunch of examples of the deployment of "contract" language. Some of it is defensive (so the students can't claim they didn't know), the better texts, in my mind, emphasize the reciprocal elements of contracts - that both sides are responsible to the other. There's nothing wrong with this. I just think we do better. More on this topic to come.