You may remember the syllabus. Handed out on the first day of class, it was a revered and simple artifact that would outline the plan of a college course. It was a pragmatic document, covering contact information, required books, meeting times, and a schedule. But it was also a symbolic one, representing the educational part of the college experience in a few dense and hopeful pages.
That version of the syllabus is gone. It has been replaced by courseware, an online tool for administering a class and processing its assignments. A document called “syllabus” persists, and is still distributed to prospective students at the start of each semester—but its function as a course plan has been minimized, if not entirely erased. First and foremost, it must satisfy a drove of bureaucratic needs, describing school policies, accreditation demands, regulatory matters, access to campus resources, health and safety guidelines, and more.
Last week, the office of the provost at Washington University in St. Louis, where I teach, sent out a new syllabus template for faculty use. It’s nine pages long and suggests that any detailed course content—a list of study topics, assigned readings, and weekly homework assignments—be sequestered at the very end. This is not unusual. I’ve seen and heard the same thing from colleagues all across the country, at schools big and small, public and private. At colleges and universities everywhere, the syllabus has become a terms-of-service document.
The change happened slowly. Long before courseware made it obsolete, the syllabus was pulled in two directions. On one side, it recorded a deliberate pedagogical plan plotted out by an expert. The syllabus, in its very brevity, offered evidence of that expertise. All of Greek lyric poetry or organic chemistry or political economy boiled down to this simple, confident itinerary. The syllabus was also meant to capture the letter and spirit of the learning environment: the nature of assignments, what success would mean, how the class would operate, the instructor’s style. It was a hallowed artifact in the mind of educators.
But on the other side, students never seemed to read our syllabi. They didn’t know which reading would be coming next, or what would be on the exam, or when the papers were due. A tradition of professorial barbs and sneers developed around that state of affairs: It’s on the syllabus! Didn’t you read the syllabus? Intention underlied impatience: The traditional university student matriculates to learn but also to become an independent adult. In its own small way, as a document that could and should be consulted, the syllabus gave students an opportunity to exercise self-reliance—and teachers a way of holding them accountable.
Even though most students wouldn’t encounter syllabi until college, their legend leaked out. The syllabus encapsulated the educational side of college life. This wasn’t just a course plan; it was a document that mediated the student’s relationship with the professor. It was a contract, and those who paid that contract insufficient mind—students who might find themselves in breach—were considered lazy, incompetent, or truculent.
Then, 21st-century software upended how courses were run. Whether built in house or licensed, learning-management systems became commonplace. The move made sense: The web had fully matured, and you could bank, pay bills, shop, and socialize online. Why not manage your classes too? But courseware would explode the syllabus into shrapnel. Sure, you could just post a PDF of an old paper syllabus online, but courseware lets you install weekly “modules” that show materials and assignments for each class meeting. It offers places to store readings and other resources. It lists teachers’ contact information and facilitates announcements. Suddenly, professors could also change their course plans on the fly, tweaking topics and assignments as they liked. Adopting the legalese that now seemed best suited to the context, we’d put a broad disclaimer on our syllabi: “subject to change.”
In effect, what had been marked as the “syllabus” section of a course website was no longer needed for that purpose. Now it was just a list of course policies. The syllabus had long been described as a course contract, an agreement between teacher and students about what would take place in the classroom and on what terms. But the “contract” part of that arrangement took over for the “course.”
For a time, courseware was optional. Some faculty kept using paper syllabi; others adopted the online tools. Some used a combination. But as universities invested big bucks in courseware, and as courseware companies made big bucks selling it, the pressure to adopt it increased. Student demand followed: They became irritated and confused by the notion that each course might be managed in a different way, and courseware gave students more information and greater feedback—or a sense of it, anyway. In particular, courseware’s ability to store and display grades allowed students to check in frequently—perhaps obsessively—on their performance, making courseware-run courses feel more student-centered than other kinds.
During the same period in which courseware was completing its takeover, the faculty-student relationship changed. Tuition prices rose, and the student’s role became more like that of a conventional customer. I’ve seen conflicts over grades or late assignments inspire faculty to add greater detail and more contract riders to their syllabi. Concerns about mental health, accommodation, disability resources, gender identity/personal pronouns, classroom climate, harassment and sexual assault, and other matters gave rise to pages’ worth of boilerplate. The pandemic demanded the addition of health and safety protocols. New ways of cheating, such as Chegg and ChatGPT, demanded fresh language about academic integrity. And each new policy clarification can beget subordinating policy clarifications; for example, using a software package called Turnitin to detect plagiarism requires that professors disclose that work submitted to courseware will be funneled through Turnitin, which vacuums data from those papers to benefit its business.
If the syllabus had simply gone away, educators could mourn its loss and move on. Instead, the document persists as the bloated corpse of what it used to be, and also as a ghost haunting the distributed, corporate information systems that have slowly replaced it.
Professors still cling to their old-fashioned syllabi in private. They share them with their colleagues looking for course ideas. When proposing new courses to department heads, they still draw up plans in which topics and materials, and assignments and schedules, take the place of quasi-legal notices. The syllabus as it used to be is for faculty’s eyes only.
Students, for their part, may be better off with the syllabus dead. (Used effectively, courseware serves their needs quite well.) But the bureaucratization of the traditional course plan has changed what it feels like to teach, and to be taught. The syllabus used to make a promise: that the classroom was a distinct place, separated from the world even if still coupled to it, where a common project would be undertaken, and during which trust would be presumed. Now it’s just the opposite, more a legal waiver than an invitation—just another contract rendered in fine print. If students don’t bother reading syllabi today, who can really blame them?
Ian Bogost is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. He is the director of the film- and media-studies program at Washington University in St. Louis, where he is also a computer-science and engineering professor. Bogost is the author of 10 books, most recently Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games. Bogost is also an award-winning game designer whose work has been played by millions of people and has been held in collections internationally, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum. – Bio taken from The Atlantic
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