I love Alf as much as the next guy. I promise. I just want that to be clear between us before I start.
Academic twitter has opened the semester with the spread (or retread) of the syllabus Easter egg. For those unaware, this involves burying a humorous instruction within a part of the syllabus the professor is concerned their students are not reading. Prominent examples in the last two years include asking students to email their instructor a picture of a dinosaur upon finishing their reading of the syllabus, or sharing a picture of the legendary 1980s television character Alf. Yes, legendary. Hence my disclaimer above.
This has generated a conversation, which is typical of academia and in and of itself is a Very Good Thing. This is of course what we do, what we are supposed to do. That conversation, also typically of academia, melds thoughtful and considered discussion with sweeping ideas such as getting rid of syllabi completely, which is the classic example of something an instructor does with a huge amount of fanfare, keeps up for a few semesters and then quietly gives up on. Better still, the same instructor might substitute the syllabus with a whole bunch of guides on Moodle/Blackboard/D2L and tell themselves it’s completely different from the staid, unpleasant and downright retrograde practice that came before.
You also have, of course, the concern that it is important for nontraditional students to read the syllabus and that having them read the syllabus, which to remind those of you not in university is typically the most banal document human hands can create outside of the firmament of state bureaucracies, will somehow serve as an important part of their education. I am a little tired of treating nontraditional students as feral scavengers captured from the fringes of the sprawling camps of the great unwashed sitting outside our shining gates, frankly. I also find confusing the idea that forcing them to read something functional and brutish will make them better readers. Note that I do not think they should only read things they want to read; but perhaps having them work through one of the readings you selected for your class is more important than making sure they read through whatever fatty section of administrative effluvium you’ve either copied and pasted into your syllabus or, for some mad reason, created yourself based on a colleague’s description of yet another basic university policy everyone has to follow.
I dislike the Easter syllabus concept because it makes a few important mistakes: (a) it thinks you can take a typical syllabus and introduce some “fun”; (b) it feels a little unfair, like it’s trying to catch people out more than highlight something; (c) it assumes that one should read an entire syllabus, which I’m not so sure is a realistic or reasonable assumption; (d) it comes across as condescending and the fun being had over these Easter eggs could, unfortunately, easily be misinterpreted as instructors making fun of their students.
These mistakes are based on some fairly widespread but, in my opinion, not universally applicable approaches that converge on the central idea that the syllabus is a central binding document for the course. For some, it is a contract. Now, teaching and learning experiences vary widely from institution to institution and from classroom to classroom. Teaching a room of 15 students who have never been in a class with more than 29 classmates is a world away from teaching a lecture hall full to bursting. It is a world away from regularly teaching classes of more than 40 people. I know this from personal experience. I know that teaching is very challenging when faced with students arguing over points that make it very difficult to know whether you are dealing with a deeply unfortunate misunderstanding or an astonishing level of mendacity. In these situations, the syllabus becomes a lifeboat; it’s not ideal, but it is reinforced by administrative polices that make “is it in your syllabus?” a mantra for junior faculty. It sits on an uncomfortable edge between a genuinely helpful touchstone and a cold-hearted excuse.
And that sucks. I get it. It really sucks. You can try and organize your 80 person class into discussion groups but it might just not work out, and early on in your career it’s extremely difficult to tell if this is due to your own limitations or not. You can create innovative assignments but then you have to grade them, and it is not like that 80 person class is the only one you are teaching. If you are one of the lucky ones, you have a Teaching Assistant, but that by no means solves the problem either. Students hand in assignments late or not at all, students ignore obvious guidelines, including ignoring a specifically assigned text, students just fail to do a decent job. Sometimes. In these situations, the syllabus appears as the rock upon which your church of learning for this semester can be built.
It can be so. If it is so, accept its functionality. Accept, also, that they will not necessarily read it. It is their call. You can not make them, nor should you. Depending on your own teaching situation, you should also think about what you are putting in your syllabus and why. When I moved from a university with a large commuter student population and plenty of nontraditional and first generation students to a selective liberal arts college with less than 1,500 undergraduates, my practices changed. The first thing I did was make my syllabus dramatically shorter.
Still, whether teaching a large class or a small one, and regardless of what academic backgrounds your students bring to the classroom, putting stuff in the syllabus that is never communicated in person seems a bad idea, unless you are just ticking boxes. I am fine with ticking boxes, but I do not get personally invested in whether or not they are being ticked. Whether you have 15 students in front of you or 400, communicate what you want in class and do not leave it to the syllabus. If they do not listen, or forget, well, that is an important learning experience. The syllabus is sitting there for them to check, assuming the expectations you have shared and discussed with them in person are sitting there in that document. If they don’t, they don’t. You’ll just have to show them an episode of Alf in class.