During our latest round of faculty research, we identified a core insight related to the syllabus: it’s a problematic artifact, one that represents a large disconnect between students, faculty, administrators and policy makers. We framed the insight like this:

“Faculty feel that external administrative pressures related to accreditation and costs are affecting their ability to focus on teaching. The syllabus has become the artifact where these conflicting pressures collide.”

For teaching faculty, the syllabus is one of the few tools they have to help them plan – to place structure around a creative vision of education, and to then build a story of learning within that structure. The act of producing a syllabus has historically been a way to force internal reflection, as an educator will envision how learning will occur over time.

One of our research participants, who had been teaching for thirty years, described (with a great deal of nostalgia) that “In the old days, you would plan your course, and say, ‘Hmm, what texts do I want? Let’s be creative; I’ll ask for all the desk copies of everything!’ and I’ll look through them. And I’m just going to let it be kind of like alchemy – I’ll let the readings sort of just ferment for a while. And then by the first class day, or even the second, or third class day, I’ll put it all together into a syllabus that hasn’t been vetted by anybody. Just that I have to have a syllabus. That was the old way.” For faculty like this, the syllabus is a framework, and faculty think of it as a flexible structure within which a great deal of creativity can emerge.

Students have heard time and time again that the syllabus is a contract, and their interpretation of that becomes deterministic: “If I follow the rules prescribed in the syllabus, I’ll have fulfilled my side of the contract.” This is sometimes followed with the entitled corollary “Since I fulfilled my side of the contract, I should receive an A in this course.”

One tenured faculty member described that “The student’s expectations have changed quite a bit. Like now they think that they should have all the Powerpoint lectures uploaded on Blackboard even before the lecture starts. I still remember the first time a student came up to me and said ‘You know you put the slides on Blackboard for us before the lecture, but then there were changes between what you uploaded and what you actually used in class, and that’s really hard on me; could you just change them so that we get to see exactly what you’re putting up?’” For students, the “Syllabus as Contract” implies a legal, rigid, precise specification of the education they are purchasing.

For administrators, the syllabus becomes one of the main tools to indicate a desire for compliance with accreditation guidelines. The language in the syllabus signals to reviewers that the faculty is both aware of and actively pursuing assessment metrics in the form of outcome statements, and the syllabus becomes a place to provide a direct mapping between program outcomes and course outcomes.

One program administrator, who is also a professor, told us that “The accrediting body dictates certain knowledge requirements that every program has to have… This [syllabus] is what I inherited, and I had never changed the learning objectives. What’s going to happen this next semester, in preparation for the site visit, is that the learning objectives will clearly be the learning objectives from the accrediting body. It will be the same thing I’m doing, but it will be worded such that, when they come look in the fall, they’ll see, oh, ok, yeah.” For administrators, the syllabus is an understated gesture of oversight, helping to communicate adherence to necessary standards or requirements.

For policy makers, the syllabus has become a political mechanism to indicate a commitment to accountability, and a way to add transparency to the often opaque world of higher education. In Texas, for example, House Bill 2504 was passed in May of 2009 that required state universities to publicly post professors’ syllabi, CVs and salaries. Given the noisy fight over community college funding underway in California, it’s likely that a similar action will be taken there. For policy makers and elected officials, the syllabus has become a window of accountability into the classroom, acting as a safeguard over taxpayer money.

We have four constituents with four very different views of the role and importance of this signal artifact. The syllabus has become a jack of all trades, and as a result, it serves to fulfill none of these roles well. Instead, we’ve found that the syllabus has become an emotional provocation, one that actually seems to provoke anxiety. Our research focused on faculty, and faculty view the syllabus as a reminder of increasing pressure from administrators to track learning outcomes and quantify – and manage – the learning process. The process of planning a course, which was once a creative process integral to knowledge production, now serves to remind faculty of diminishing freedom.

A long-time faculty member told us, quite candidly, that “Accrediting bodies require this degree of consistency of goals, and objectives; and you have to spell out what the readings are, and what the assignments are.. it gets very challenging. And tedious. And there are some of us – I won’t say who – who consider it an infringement on academic freedom. Why should I have to teach the course the same way as everybody else?” The syllabus has become a point of anxiety, and it seems inevitable that the evolution of higher education will demand a new set of artifacts (both digital and analog) to help all four constituents achieve their goals in greater harmony.

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