Blog Post

Contractual Syllabi

 

Our school year is set to begin in late September (ah, the good old quarter system) and I am once again (solo) teaching public speaking after a year off on fellowship.  I’m taking suggestions from past students that they wrote on my online evaluation and adjusting my syllabus accordingly (One thing I will not change? The daily “hard” news consumption requirement.  There are things other than Jersey Shore. Perhaps not many, but at least a few.).  I also have been logging onto various websites to look for ideas, and one I’ve been toying with for a couple weeks is the idea of a syllabus contract.

In essence, a syllabus contract would require students to sign a form stating that they’ve read the syllabus.  As young adults, I generally feel my students should learn that reading the syllabus is required to retain good standing in the class.  But I often find myself fielding emails and questions that are easily answered by the syllabus.  In a couple of disturbing moments, one in which a student screamed at me in front of the class informing me that if the assignment requirements were in bold in the syllabus she would have known what was expected of her, therefore, her poor grade was my fault. 

I would have just ignored her temper tantrum, except that she made her displeasure at my “unfair” grading very clear on my evaluation, which of course, future employers examine.  I don’t have the luxury of explaining myself to someone who sees a disgruntled student rate me as “inflexible” or “unprofessional” in my grading.  I should note that the majority of the comments are positive and offer constructive, useful criticism, but as is the case with most public opinion surveys, the most angry are often the most motivated to express their displeasure.

I wonder if a syllabus contract is a way to avoid these uncomfortable, stressful, inevitable?? situations in the classroom. Or is this something I will just have to grin and bear as I suit up each academic year?

If anyone out there has a suggestion or opinion, I would be interested to hear it.

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3 comments

I've spent the last few semesters as an instructor at a community college that requires syllabus contracts for each course. While I don't know that the students read the syllabus more carefully, having them sign the contract saved me from more than a few run-ins like the one you described. I found that giving the students until the second meeting to read the syllabus and sign the contracts seems to raise the level of syllabus comprehension. Good luck!

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I worked for a freshman writing program at UCSD that required students to sign syllabus contracts, and I found it to be an extremely effective way of not only avoiding conflicts like the ones you are describing, but also for making it clear from the very start that I expect students to take responsibility for their education. I would definitely recommend it.

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thanks y'all, for the suggestion. I am always worried about not setting the right kind of tone in class. In general, I am a pretty tough grader, which my mother, and five of my aunts (I come from an extended line of teachers. ^-^)  all have been. But only in the last couple years have students really pushed back and *expected* to get decent grades for just barely following the assignments. I have talked informally to folks who also have advocated a syllabus contract, if for nothing more than protection from unwarranted complaints or verbal scuffles, I am more than likely going to try it this quarter and if it works, keep doing it. I'll keep y'all posted!

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