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!