Syllabus as Contract

I’m working on an essay about the corporate language in higher ed as a followup to the big response I got to this post on EXCELLENT CUSTOMER SERVICE in a job advertisement for a Renaissance English professor.

One paragraph of my draft currently reads:

Take the syllabus. Many faculty (in my experience) and some teaching or student-resource centers refer to the syllabus
as a contract. This makes sense as a tactic to teach students to, first of all,
read the syllabus, and second to try and create a sense of reciprocal
obligation. In the contract, both sides are obligated to hold to its terms. The
syllabus-as-contract can function defensively, protecting faculty from lawsuits
or disciplinary action from students upset about their grades. In my
experience, students actually treat syllabi more as End User License Agreements
(EULAs) – something for which one glances at the first page, clicks “agree to
terms,” and moves on to the product without reading any of the document.

I then go on to talk about learning-centered syllabi as better for the professor and the student, and why, and how using the business model of contract gets in the way of learning, and in fact gets in the way of the product we are actually selling: a well-structured opportunity to learn and to earn meaningful (hopefully) credentials.
Below I offer a quick sampling of online texts on the syllabus as contract, each using it as a positive metaphor. There is an equally vast, and perhaps more current, array of texts on the syllabus that explicitly reject that metaphor, but that’s a subject for another post. Some of these links are aimed at faculty, some graduate student teachers, and some at undergrads.
I’ll offer just a few comments at the end and please note, these are pulled out of context intentionally. No criticism of the specific posts is intended. I’m just interested in how the language is being used. Follow the links for the full context.
  • On the Cutting Edge – Professional Development for GeoScience Faculty: A detailed syllabus gives students a sense of the nature of the course, what they will be expected to do in the course, and how their performance will be assessed. In many cases, the syllabus is viewed as a contract between you and the students. Whether considered a legal contract or not, a syllabus should be clear about policies and procedures related to the course. Some institutions have specific requirements regarding what should be included on the syllabus.
  • The Purpose of a Syllabus (Parkes and Harris, 2002): The first purpose of a syllabus — either explicitly or implicitly – is to serve as a contract between the instructor and the student … Like any contract, the syllabus serves to set forth what is expected during the term of the contract – typically a semester – and to guide the behaviors of both parties.

Note – This is a good piece that weighs many models of syllabus development. It’s more of a review essay.

  • General Counsel at Hampton College – Constructing Legally Sound Syllabi: Remember, even though the courts do not view a syllabus as a legal document- it is safe for you to view it as a contract. View your syllabus as an agreement between you and the students. If it is necessary to make changes, do so only to benefit the student.
  • Cengage Learning: The syllabus is like a contract between the instructor and the student. It is also sometimes used by the registrar to determine if a transfer course can be considered an equivalent to the course being taught at the new school. When considering these two important purposes of the syllabus, there are certain items that need to be included. Let’s begin with the essential information for the syllabus. Remember we are considering the syllabus to be a contract between the instructor and the student.
  • From a bio prof at Vassar: “Your Syllabus is a Contract” Why are the contract details important? Think back to last semester. Did you have a student who turned things in late routinely or asked for extensions on assignments the night before they were due? Did your syllabus have a clear policy about late work, about extensions? If so, did you abide by your course policies? What about assignment due dates? Did you change due dates routinely? Why? A well thought-out course syllabus is a key ingredient to a successful course. This contract you make with the students will give them clear expectations, both what you plan to do and how you plan to do it AND what they need to do to be successful in your course.
  • UMN Disability Services: Believe it or not, the syllabus for each class you take at the University is your passport for success. It is a contract of sorts and is filled with valuable information. By staying enrolled in a class, you are indicating that you have read the syllabus, understand what you need to do to be successful in that class, and accept the terms of this agreement. But like reading any other document, it helps to have guidelines to understand the information you find in a syllabus.
  • A syllabus guide to Graduate Teaching at University of Nebraska – Lincoln: It establishes class policies, assignments and deadlines. Because the syllabus is a written document and it is retained by the student, a syllabus can eliminate misunderstandings and clarify policies, thus reducing student confusion and the incidence of the allegation, “You never told us…” Think of your syllabus as a contract between you and each student. You expect each student to abide by the guidelines put forth, and promise to extend earned rewards at the end of the course. Students expect that the guidelines put forth will not change mid-course.
  • “Tomorrow’s Professor” from the CTLE at Stanford: As an agreement or contract defining mutual obligations between instructor and students, your syllabus also speaks for the college and university. “You should realize that this fact gives you responsibilities but also gives you protection against complaints or challenges to your teaching. For example, the conditions, goals, and requirements you state enable (department chairs and academic administrators) to support your decisions on grades, teaching methods, readings, and topics of inquiry. That is only possible, of course, if you and the administration (and the students) have a record of what you promised and planned, and if your syllabus conforms broadly to program goals and policies” (SU Project Advance, 1995). You will need to be familiar with institutional policies regarding attendance, examinations, drop/adds, course withdrawals, learning disabilities, and academic integrity. Equipped with an understanding of the myriad ways a learning-centered syllabus can function, you can begin to use it in your course.
So there’s a bunch of examples of the deployment of “contract” language. Some of it is defensive (so the students can’t claim they didn’t know), the better texts, in my mind, emphasize the reciprocal elements of contracts – that both sides are responsible to the other. There’s nothing wrong with this. I just think we do better. More on this topic to come.

5 Replies to “Syllabus as Contract”

    1. Lisa Amor Petrov says:

      Sure.. too bad you can't see it–I got some interesting replies from other participants in the MOOC. It was our first assignment, to write about something we have had to "unlearn" in order to learn something new.

      Here it is (without the images):

      "How I Unlearned 'It's on the Syllabus' and Learned to Give Students More Input"

      It's fairly common to hear professors complain that students ask them questions clearly answered "on the syllabus." Whether it's homework, exam schedule or policy, "it's on the syllabus."

      My screen shot below shows t-shirts for all the "It's on the syllabus" folks out there.

      I have many times heard the syllabus referred to as a "contract" that students receive (and presumably accept) on day one. Some people even make students sign a paper stating they've read it. (See the screen shot of my quick Google search "I make students sign the syllabus" for examples.)

      What I've never heard is professors talking about how their students contribute to the syllabus, or even if there is any negotiating the terms of "the contract." Everyone accepts that the syllabus comes ready-made from the start. Well, maybe not everyone all the time, but most profs assume students accept it because, let's be honest, do they have any choice? Anyone who doesn't accept the terms can always drop the class. The attitude is "take it or leave it."

      I used to think of the syllabus as exclusively my responsibility. Of course I did! Never, in all my years of being a student, had any professor requested input from me on the syllabus for a course. Not once. Not in college, not in graduate school. The professor gave me the syllabus and I followed it. That is not to say that I had no avenues for expressing my intellectual interests in courses over the years. Many times. I could choose a paper topic, I could choose which questions to answer on an exam…. There was sometimes choice, but never regarding the syllabus.

      I never really had much reason why to rethink or question the role of the syllabus and the method of its creation, that is, not until I decided to teach an undergraduate seminar. At my institution (private, liberal arts) we have a four year seminar program. Each year has a theme and a common text. Everyone is free to do whatever, so long as everyone reads the common text and professors submit an assignment for assessment purposes.

  1. Lisa Amor Petrov says:

    second part:

    I taught a sophomore seminar for a few years; the theme is diversity & community. It was good, but not great. I didn't always love what students said in the evaluations. On the first day of each sophomore seminar I always did a presentation of the course. I explained what a seminar is and what its guiding principles are. I always felt somewhat hypocritical saying that as we answered our questions new questions would arise, and the seminar would "evolve on the spot." I knew that wasn't really true because the syllabus had already determined what we were going to look at and when, which no doubt circumscribed our discussions.

    When I wanted to try a different theme, and therefore a different year, I taught a junior seminar, whose theme is work, leisure & technology. My main goal was to improve the seminar experience for myself and my students. In this new course I decided to try two experiments: 1) arrive to class on the first day without a syllabus and 2) invite a recent alum to join us for the semester and serve as a bridge between myself and the students. (More on #2 at another time.) All of us would create the syllabus together; I would bring only a skeleton of one to start from. I will admit, the thought of coming to the first day of class without a syllabus was a bit scary. Students expect one. Would they think I was disorganized or, worse, unprepared? What would their tolerance be for doing something different?

    As it turned out, it was the smartest thing I have ever done in a class. The evaluations affirmed my choices; my scores were measurably higher than the average for the seminars. Students wrote: "This is what a seminar should be." They felt empowered and invested in the course content due to the simple fact that they had contributed to determining what sources we would use to make our way through the guiding questions. They also negotiated with each other how much weight each category of assessment would have in determining the final grade. I made suggestions of minimums, but the final breakdown was theirs. Each student also had an opportunity during the semester to bring us a text to consider and discuss (it could be a reading, a video, whatever). Often what they chose came directly out of previous discussions; there were questions we kept coming back to; there were doubts and concerns they had that we never really exhausted. Things really were evolving. It was a seminar in the true sense of the word. No one ever had any questions about the syllabus; they knew its content because they had helped create it.

    We want students to take responsibility for their learning. We want to create "life-long learners." But when do we provide students with opportunities to set the agenda for learning?

    As I wrote in my post for the forum on "what kind of education do you believe in?" I want my students to have a liberating experience. I want them to really grasp the concept of, and practice personal agency. Giving students input on the syllabus, whether a lot or a little, is one way to inspire greater ownership in a course, and by extension education, while simultaneously increasing satisfaction. For me, it has all started with unlearning the whole attitude represented by "it's on the syllabus."

    1. David Perry says:

      "We want to create "life-long learners." But when do we provide students with opportunities to set the agenda for learning? "

      So well said, Lisa. We're on similar ground here. Back to give the essay a second, closer, read.

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