The Adjunct Files: The Syllabus: Your Contract With Your Students

dIt occurred to me, finally, that although the blog is called “Kansas Writer & Teacher,” I don’t focus very much (at all, really) on the teaching side of things.

But today’s world of education is changing fast. More and more, universities and colleges can’t afford to replace full-time faculty; they’re hiring adjunct instructors instead, or relying more and more on graduate teaching assistants to teach the 100 and 200 level courses so the professors can focus on the higher levels. They want adjuncts that have ‘real world experience’ in areas like business or technology as well – but there’s more to teaching than just knowing your particular subject. Online teaching seems great – no set hours, check in with the class in your pajamas or from the local coffee house (BTDT!) – but there’s also a very steep learning curve.

So I thought maybe I’d offer a few blog posts about some teaching basics. Just in case you’re a GTA without a lot of oversight, or a new adjunct trying to figure it all out – hopefully, you’ll find something useful. This week, I want to look at the most basic building block of all – the syllabus.*

I cannot emphasize this enough:  the syllabus is your contract with the students. Once they have it in their hands, they have no excuses. But, it’s more than that. The syllabus is your way to protect yourself in case of confusion, or worst case scenario, a grade appeal. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that it contains everything you need your students to know, including:

  • Your contact information (and, if you’re crazy enough give them your home or cell number, when NOT to call!)
  • The name and course number of the class
  • Textbook information (title, publisher, edition, volume, and if any other readings are required, list those as well)
  • If it’s an online course, you need to set parameters for online attendance – how many times to log in per week, when discussions, etc. need to be posted, when assignments open and close. Your college may have these set already.
  • Computer requirements, including what browser works best with your learning management system (you probably have Blackboard or Moodle). If the course requires students to have any online engagement (submitting assignments via drop boxes, or doing online quizzes), include that information as well.
  • The college’s policies. Usually, these will be given to you via email and often include the college’s policies on academic integrity/honesty, attendance, credit hour definitions, tutoring and academic support, counseling and support systems, etc.)
  • Your policies. This is where you get to set the ground rules in terms of late work, attendance, homework, extra credit, and cell phone use in class. (Note: if your college has rules in place regarding any of these issues, you’ll have to defer to those.)
  • Grading schemas. What assignments are required, and how many points will each be worth? No, you do not get to make it up as you go; this needs to be established before your first day of class! Not to say that you can’t add in assignments as needed – I’ve certainly done my share of video papers and pop quizzes – but the big ticket items like required papers, exams, chapter quizzes, etc. need to be here.
  • Likewise, it’s helpful to offer descriptions of each kind of assignment. You can go into detail on papers and such later, of course, but a brief overview will suffice here.
  • The semester schedule. Week by week, what are you doing? Which chapters, what readings? When are things due? If you’re teaching Literature, for example, this schedule will need to include when students need to have read X short story for class.
  • And perhaps the most important thing of all: “Syllabus is subject to change at the discretion of the instructor.” This way, if you do need to change the schedule (or anything else), you’re covered. (Just make sure the students get the updates!)

Remember:  this is your contract with the students. If your expectations of their behavior are there, they can’t file a grade appeal later and claim they didn’t know X or Y (“I didn’t know we couldn’t use a cell phone to look up stuff during exams!” “But it’s right here in the syllabus – no cell phones in class, AND ‘no notes, books, study aides, or cell phones during exams!’”)

So how do you structure a syllabus? Your college probably already has a template. But if not, here’s a basic outline of my own:

  • Course Name/Number
  • Office Hours/Contact Information
  • Textbook information
  • Computer information
  • Grades – schema, and a description of/expectations for assignments
  • My policies
  • The college’s policies
  • The semester schedule

I can’t tell you how many times my syllabi have ‘saved the day’ in grade appeals. Just last semester, a student claimed she didn’t know how a particular paper was supposed to be structured and written. However, not only was it discussed online, but that particular assignment was given 1 ½ pages in the syllabus. She lost. It doesn’t matter if students read it or not; they have the information. Students who are serious about the course will read it and ask questions if they don’t understand something.

If you do end up needing to use the ‘safe word’ – “Syllabus is subject to change at the discretion of the instructor.” – do it judiciously. Do it because it’s the only way. Do it because there’s no other choice. Especially if you’re teaching a class for the first time, you might not quite understand how long a particular chapter or unit will take; you may schedule a week for something and end up needing two weeks instead. Every class is different. Some will move faster because the students understand the material already; others will drag because you’ll have to go back to basics. You may have to cut a chapter or two from the schedule (I did the first time I taught Philosophy. And the second. And the third, come to think on it.) because you overestimated what you could do.

AND, most importantly, if you do need to change the syllabus, tell the students and post the revised version ASAP. It’s the only fair thing for them, and the safest thing for you.

Next week, I’ll offer some examples of sections of the syllabus I talked about this week. But hopefully, if you were a bit lost on the syllabus, this will give you a better idea of how to structure one – and why it’s so important to get it right.

* If your college has a specific format for syllabi (and many do), including specific information to include and structure, please follow that above all else!

Photo Challenge: Against All Odds

I live in Kansas. Rural Kansas. Backwater, backwoods, back of nowhere Kansas. You’ve got Fords and Chevys and that’s it. I mean, I drive a Mini Cooper and no one even knows what that is! Which is why this story is definitely Against All Odds:


I’m a Top Gear fan to the max. Lambos, Porsches, McLarens, Bugattis – the lot. One day a couple of years ago, I was driving home and – zoom. Right past me. No time to see more than an angled hood and bright orange, but . . . I KNEW. I called my best friend – “I SAW A LAMBORGHINI!” He was dubious, to say the least. I think he laughed, in fact.

A week later, on a run for milk . . . I see it. In my home town. Sitting. Unattended. Well. Sort of. Let’s say I was a bit surprised to find I was not the only admirer! So against all odds, in my rural neck of the woods, there’s a Lamborghini. And, against all odds, the camera on my cell phone was actually working (who thinks they’re going to encounter a Lamborghini sitting unattended on a milk run? Seriously?), so I was able to get some shots. Not great shots – but enough to show my friends. 🙂

(Sadly, the Lambo does not live here. It was only visiting. I miss it.)




The Flawed and the Vulnerable: why characters need to be both

Have you ever read a book and about halfway through – for some reason you couldn’t quite put your finger on – you started to feel bored?

There’s a lot of reasons for this:  lack of forward momentum, too much backstory, poor writing, not enough tension, nothing big for the characters to do, no important stakes. But there’s another reason that could underlie all these things:  boring characters. I don’t mean characters that do nothing, or have boring dialogue. I mean characters that are too perfect.

In writing, there’s an axiom:  give your characters flaws. Or more accurately, give them vulnerabilities. No one wants a hero that can’t be stopped. Where’s the fun (and tension) in that?

Imagine if we’d known Harry couldn’t be defeated by Voldemort. Would anyone have bothered to read the last book, let alone 8.3 million of us in the first 24 hours? Nope. The tension lies in the not knowing. If the reader has doubt your hero can really pull it off – whatever ‘it’ is – then they’re invested. They’re rooting for your hero. They want to see him succeed – but it’s up to you to make sure the reader is on the edge of their seat, biting their fingernails, turning the pages long past the time they should have gone to bed.

I’ve been reminded of all of this in the past week through my new favorite TV show, Lucifer, as well as the latest installments of two of my favorite book series.

luciferIf you’re not familiar with Lucifer, it’s a fantastic show, and the main character, played by the devilishly handsome Tom Ellis, is Lucifer. In the flesh. Got bored with Hell and decided to go to Los Angeles and get a life. Though truthfully, it’s much more complicated than that, and the writers really should get Emmys for how well they’ve done with this material.

Lucifer is a tortured soul, mischievous and charming, the consummate bad boy – but beset by his own demons (both literally and figuratively). As an angel, he can’t be harmed, except by a heavenly weapon – but then he meets Detective Chloe Decker, and for some inexplicable reason, if she’s around . . . he’s mortal.

This instantly raises the stakes.

Add in the fact that he’s always with her on cases and in shootouts and the stakes are raised even higher. Let’s face it:  a hero who can fall off a ten-story building without a scratch is, well, a bit boring. Put him in proximity to Chloe, though, and suddenly there’s tension, because there’s real danger.

51gpkfudefl-_sx328_bo1204203200_Now. If you’re not familiar with Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series, you’re in for a treat. Charley is a private investigator, but she’s also the Grim Reaper. She’s shiny and bright and spirits from all over not only see her, but cross through her to the other side. She was born that way. She’s also smart, sarcastic, and funny as hell even when the situation doesn’t call for it. For instance, in this book she went to rescue a client, got caught, and now they’re both about to die:

“He must be returned to the earth,” she said. “He must learn from his mistakes and be allowed to grow again.”

“You’re going to replant him?” I asked.

“And you as well.”

“Can I come back as an azalea?”

I love Charley. But I admit, this book is slightly on the boring side for one reason:  Charley can’t die. We didn’t know that until a few books ago. The first few books in the series are fantastic because Charley can’t help but put herself in harm’s way; sometimes it’s to help someone, and sometimes it’s just because she’s That Kind of Person, but we’re always on the edge of our seats because we know something bad is coming. She can heal fast, but she’s not immune to pain, torture, or dying. But now we know she’s a god, and she can heal herself. There may be a few things that can kill her, but not many. So we no longer have the great tension we once did of ‘how will she get out of this?’, because we know she can.

But by this time, Jones has created an entire world of secondary characters that are almost as endearing and fun as Charley herself – and they’re almost all mortal. She’s fiercely loyal to her human family and friends, and will do anything to save them. So we do worry for them, and for her daughter Beep, who is in hiding. But as I was reading the ending of the most recent book tonight, I realized that I was a little disappointed – because I knew Charley could get out of it any time she wanted, really. The tension of that scene was gone.

bjfioefvegrhthtThe other book I’m reading is Feversong, the last book in the Fever series by Karen Marie Moning. I. Love. These. Books. In the world Moning has created, everything has limits and rules.

Basic premise:  MacKayla Lane can see the Fae. The walls between Fae and mankind have crashed, and Mac needs to put it back up. Not easy, but she has help from the other sidhe-seers, as well as Jericho Barrons and the rest of the Nine. We don’t know exactly what the Nine are, but we know they can’t die – well, there is one way, but let’s not go there. If they do die, they just magically go back to an original starting point, heal, and then come back to Dublin.

The rules:  Mac’s human. To defeat the Fae, she can use one of two weapons that can kill them. She can also snack on Fae in order to gain their capabilities, but if she does, she’s vulnerable to her own weapon. The Nine can regenerate, but it takes a while, and in the interim, they’re gone. Sure, they return eventually, but will it be in enough time? That’s the question. So there’s built-in tension with the rules, especially before Mac knows they come back. They are vulnerable. Plus, we really like them and don’t want bad things to happen to them, either. 🙂

This is why, when you’re writing a thriller, a mystery, or – well, anything – your hero must be flawed and vulnerable. Vulnerable is the key, though. Lucifer is flawed, but without Chloe, he’s not vulnerable on any level. She makes him that way, both physically and emotionally. Charley is flawed, but again, not very vulnerable. It’s the people in her life that are her Achilles’ heel. Mac – and the Nine – are both flawed and vulnerable in certain circumstances.

Flaws make us human. Flaws lead to downfalls. Flaws lead us to make irrational choices, to do things we’d normally not otherwise do. Flaws in your characters do the same thing – they become overconfident, overlook things, get hurt, cut people out of their lives, make mistakes. In a truly good, character-driven book, it’s the flaws that help drive the narrative.

Flaws  and vulnerabilities are what we identify with as readers. Who wants a perfect main character?

That’s just boring. 🙂