The Amazing Colossal Syllabus

Instructors have to spell out every detail for today’s students, and do some of their thinking for them.

By Thomas Bertonneau


August 31, 2011

When I was an undergraduate at UCLA in 1972, I was enrolled in four classes.  On the first day of the term, each instructor went through the ritual of introducing the course and handing out the syllabus, if there was a syllabus.  In the freshman composition course, taught by a man who later distinguished himself as a James Joyce scholar, I remember no syllabus at all, only the comment that we would be writing a number of formal papers.

In Cultural Anthropology there was a syllabus—a single mimeographed sheet with a few dates on it (exams, deadlines for papers) and the mandatory bibliography.  In first-term German, as in freshman composition, the teacher issued no syllabus.  The chapters of the primer were syllabus enough.  For my fourth course, a survey of ancient civilizations, the textbook’s table of contents served as the syllabus.

Admission to UCLA in the mid-twentieth century was still rigorous and exclusive; our preceptors rightly took for granted that students understood that the ten weeks of the term would correspond to a structure. Students would expect regular quizzes, that they would have to submit formal essays at the midterm and at the end of the quarter, and that they would have to keep up with the reading.

Similarly, I recall no detailed instructions for writing term papers and essays.  Where a course called for a research paper, we knew the form; we had learned the protocols in high school.

As I passed, for good or ill, into graduate studies and became a teaching fellow, I modeled my course syllabi and my approach to the term on the common, informal style I was accustomed to.

That approach seemed to work at first, but by 1987 I was convinced that many students needed more than the minimal syllabus of required books and deadlines for assignments.

Nowadays my course syllabi tend to run to many pages and always include a punctilious day-by-day calendar of the semester stipulating, for example, precisely which pages in what book students need to have read for class.  My instructions to students concerning formal written work have also become replete with prescription in a way that I would not have thought necessary even ten years ago.  Colleagues concur that instructors at the state-college level can take little or nothing for granted about student preparedness and that everything, absolutely everything, must be spelled out in advance.  Without abundant guidance and prescription, students complain of being lost, as perhaps they are, or of “not understanding what the professor wants,” as is perhaps the case.

I am less concerned to explain what brought about this change than I am to explicate what the changed assumptions mean socially and culturally.  For the sake of completeness, however, I will tackle the first issue briefly.

First-year college students have a drastically diminished vision of what higher education portends for them.  The idea of discipline that enabled my UCLA instructors to assume procedural competency in their students, and that enabled most students to acquit themselves during the term with only a minimal syllabus, no longer exists.

When I took college courses, I knew in advance that I would leave the bookstore with an armful of paperback editions.  Students nowadays often email me just before the semester begins asking what book, in the singular, they will need to buy for my courses.  In high school, as I know because my son is currently a high school student, there often is one book for one course.  In college too, there is often one book for one course, even in literature departments.

The notorious classroom anthologies, a collusive racket run by the Ivy League professoriate and the academic publishing houses, here account for the prevailing student impression.  I dislike the anthologies intensely, not least because they eclipse the legitimate and civilized notion that a primary reason for going to college—or let us say for pursuing higher education—is to have the opportunity and the leisure to read books, in the plural.

The singularization of a formerly plural noun might seem a trivial matter.  I think not. The sadly impoverished student expectation of one book for one course, reveals that the image of college studies as an abundantly literate activity has no contemporary hold in the youthful, college-bound imagination. Moreover, the pedagogical practice of one book for one course, speaks of the triumph of the bureaucratic-administrative view of higher learning beyond the domain of deans, provosts, and presidents.  Instructors are also to blame.

It follows that students who never expect books, in the plural, to constitute the foci of a fifteen-week semester will experience confusion about how to comport themselves with a six- or seven-book demand in a three-month period.  (Their trepidation is real; I would not discount it.)  The Amazing Colossal Syllabus reaches to blot out the sun in part from the need to specify, in a day-by-day and page-by-page manner, the optimum schedule of reading.

To cover a fair chunk of The Odyssey in two or three weeks, for example, students must know that on Monday of the first week they need to have read so many pages, on Wednesday so many more, etcetera.  They also need to know well in advance that on Friday of the seventh week they must turn in a paper of so many words in length referencing The Odyssey and some other book.

The enlargement of the syllabus also stems from the need to define, explain, and insofar as possible justify the course itself, something that no syllabus from my undergraduate career ever bothered to do.  The syllabus of my survey of ancient literature (“Western Heritage”) addresses the basic notion of historical indebtedness, the idea of continuity of insight, and of the dignity of knowledge as opposed to ignominy of ignorance.  The syllabus also addresses the difficulty of reading; it tells students that an epic poem by Homer or a philosophical dialogue by Plato is not like a TV drama or a movie, in which in the first few minutes, one can predict the remainder. 

Students today also need explicit information to the effect that they will not adequately understand a literary text unless they annotate the pages or take reading notes or make some effort to keep track of details and of events in their causal complexity.

The same syllabus also explains for students, most of whom have never heard of it and who suffer torments on account of it, the custom of dates “BC” and “AD.”  It explains that the first century AD begins, not with the year one hundred, but with the year one.  It explains that in the period “BC” we count down as we move forward through the years.  The first day of class is usually devoted exclusively to going over the syllabus, reading portions of it aloud, so that everyone grasps that it is the effective daybook and calendar of the semester.

Some of this effort—and much of the hypertrophied syllabus—is precautionary. It is precautionary on behalf of students, who, from day one, will know in advance every requirement and assignment of the course. It is also precautionary on behalf of the syllabus-writer, who seeks protection from petulant students claiming they never knew the schedule or failed to receive procedural knowledge concerning the semester.  Syllabus in hand, no one can plead ignorance.

Instructions for formal written work in my teaching have also grown more explicit, more detailed and copious, over the years. Mostly, that is due to my increasing awareness of how badly prepared for serious writing almost all contemporary college students are.  In 1974, a professor would simply have told his students that they should write an essay comparing Madame Bovary and Maggie, A Girl of the Streets. Only a few of my students would have any idea how to respond to so minimal a request.

I now write instructions for formal essays in such a way as to do a good deal of preliminary thinking for students so that they can write their papers by continuing a discussion that I have begun.

But precaution also plays a role. My instructions nowadays run to the extremely specific both in framing issues and in stipulating what the response should include, again on an almost paragraph-by-paragraph basis.

That is an anti-plagiarism gesture.  Plagiarism is rampant on college campuses.  The Internet has made it easy to download chunks of the Wikipedia or ready-made “essays” from cynical websites that enable students to avoid every literate commitment.  Framing issues narrowly and making micro-specific demands put obstacles in the way of the downloadable “theme” and make plagiarism easier to detect when it occurs.

In sum, the idea of the higher learning has withered away.  Students expect college to be like secondary education, and secondary education is itself thin gruel compared to what it was when I graduated from high school in 1972.  The Amazing Colossal Syllabus attempts to bridge the gap between what students expect in reference to their college career and what they need to do to justify that career in something other than a degraded, purely pragmatic way.


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