Ten Things About Your Course Syllabus

Yes, obviously, you need to put your office hours, due dates, and course readings & assignments.  Here are ten other things to consider:

1. Put your syllabus online where students can easily find it.   Lots of people already do this, but surprisingly not everyone. Be sure to include all of the syllabus online.   Reference course expectations and guidelines along with finding the readings, due dates, and exam information.  Having these posted online should help answer student questions so that your email is more manageable.  As a personal favor to me, do not use Comic Sans as your font. Please!

2. Require back-up copies of all assignments.  Clearly state how assignments are to be turned in.  Along with the assignment turned-in to you, require that students have both digital and paper copies of the assignment that are immediately available upon your request.  This requirement will save you from hassle if students claim they turned in their assignment but didn’t.  Also, that dreaded thing might happen, and you misplace a student’s paper… or spill wine on it.

3. Clearly state your email policy.   The University of Massachusetts at Amherst drew from work-life balance research  to suggest a university-wide email policy.   Faculty and staff give each other 2 business days to respond to email messages, and those responses are expected during regular work hours. Hold off on sending emails other than during 9-5 hours.

Note that students should check their syllabus first to see if the answer to their question is there before emailing you and that they will receive a response within 2 business days during regular business hours. (That is, students should wait two days before emailing you again, asking if you got their message.) Require that students write professional, but casual, messages (i.e., you expect complete sentences and won’t respond to texting-language like “i need 2 c u”).  Their messages need to include the course reference number in the subject line (e.g., GEOG 101).

4. Mention manners.  Michele Goodwin, blogging for the Chronicle of Higher Education, suggests putting a manners section on the syllabus.  As Goodwin writes, a manners section isn’t about treating students as children. The manners section is about teaching students professional behavior.  These manners can include things such as calling you Professor.   I say, hey, maybe you want your students to use your first name, but be clear to yourself about the implications in terms of authority in the classroom and the kinds of boundaries that you are dictating.  Think about who, because of their privilege, will still have professorial authority when called by their first name and whose might slide.

The manners section is also a place where you can state that all students in the class are to be respected and that discriminatory behavior will not be tolerated.  However, since these issues are more than just manners— you might want to include #5 below:

5. Note a productive classroom environment.   Make a statement in your syllabus that the classroom is meant to be productive space and then actively follow up those words with your pedagogy.  You might want to reference readings on how to have a classroom discussion. Better yet, if participation is expected in your class, have readings for students that they can read and discuss during your first class.    Students aren’t always explicitly taught strategies for having a productive and inclusive classroom discussion.  (My colleague and I wrote a paper on a related topic and check out the references we use, particularly the Tannen and Kahn readings.)     Later in term, if and when things start to go awry, pull out your syllabus and revisit with your class how the classroom environment might get back on track.

6.  Provide a rubric for grading.  A grading rubric provides the expectations for assignments, denoting the level of content and organization and style. The rubric gives students a better idea of what you are looking for and where they can improve. Circle general comments within the rubric as you read an assignment, and your written comments can be focused on specific points.

One of the best things about a rubric is that it makes it visually obvious to you and to students what grade the paper deserves (most comments circled are those in the B/C range… it’s a B-).  Since the rubric guides your grading, it helps to ensure your grading is consistent (especially important during an exhausting marathon of grading!).  Have this rubric available online and include it as part of the paper copy of the syllabus that you provide students.

Carnergie Mellon University provides an excellent outline and example grading rubrics across disciplines and kinds of assignments.   The rubrics are downloadable in Word so you can tweak them to your needs.

7.  Have an explicit policy regarding grade changes.   Share in print that you spend considerable time and effort to ensure fair grading and to provide feedback. Sometimes students don’t consider that, yes, we work very hard to be fair and to provide thoughtful comments.

State how students should go about contesting a grade and state the university policy on grade changes.  Do students have to provide you a written justification in how their assignment met with the requirements and fit the rubric provided?  Is that written justification one page long, typed?  Or do students have to go a formal university route in contesting their grade?  Do students understand that a reassessment of their work means their grade may be lower, higher or the even remain the same?  

8. State clear parameters around tardy assignments.  Does your department of university have guidelines on late assignments? What should your policy be?  Be very clear about how penalties are calculated.  For example, if a paper is due on Thursday and turned in on Monday is the paper 2 days late or is it 4 days late?   Do you drop a letter grade per day or a percentage per day?  Perhaps you make it clear that you don’t accept late papers.  The clearer your parameters, the better.

9. Cite your plagiarism and cheating policy.   State your university’s policy on cheating.  Some universities and departments are far more lenient than others.  Make sure students know what cheating is, what happens if they are caught cheating in your class, and stick to your guns. Provide links to library resources on referencing.  (Also, check out an interesting conversation about plagiarism here.)

10. Reach out.   Concisely reference campus services such as the university counseling center, diversity resources, and campus support groups.  Recent studies of undergraduates  reveal incredibly high levels of stress and poor mental health (See also this NYT article). You never know if a student in your class needs help from these services.  A few lines of print on your syllabus with names of services and websites might help a student make the connections that s/he needs to gain access to appropriate resources.

Bonnie Kaserman hails from a village in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina.  She is now a PhD Candidate in Geography at the University of British Columbia.  Her research focuses upon race, rights, and environmental science.  For the last decade, she has been committed to the mentoring and professional development of women in Geography.  Bonnie also works as a model for Vancouver’s sustainable fashion industry and is a painter, completing a series of pieces commenting on the geopolitical implications of Earth resource satellites.  Her website is found at www.geog.ubc.ca/~kaserman.