It might be argued that the syllabus is rarely read at all. University teaching and learning centers emphasize the necessity of a well-designed comprehensive syllabus; instructors compose syllabi with exacting care; but few read them for pleasure, and many accept many students’ failure—or refusal—to read them as given. A popular strip at the online comics site www.phdcomics.com depicts a beleaguered professor simply waving a sign inscribed “It’s in the syllabus” at every student appearing at her office door. Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence organizes its online guide to syllabus composition into three primary headings, two discussing best practices and one on “[motivating] students to refer to the syllabus”. These examples reflect a concern that can be read across higher education: students have to read the syllabus, they don’t read the syllabus, why can’t we get them to read the syllabus? Various techniques have been proposed to address the problem: in-class syllabus review, quizzes, signature fields. Such approaches may produce the desired short-term result, but focusing on enforcement from the outset may come at a cost to the classroom dynamic.
The formal and stylistic features of the syllabus are rarely examined separately from the effects the document aims to produce. The bulk of syllabus studies have been conducted in the context of comprehensive pedagogic strategies in academic departments, teaching and learning centers, and schools. It follows, then, that best practices in syllabus production and use should frequently be determined based on expected or observed results. Within this model, the syllabus is designed and evaluated according to the fit between the instructor’s pedagogic aims and the learning outcomes and behaviors the syllabus helps support.
This emphasis on practice is not inappropriate: after all, the syllabus is an instrument. It formalizes the norms and expectations of an educational community, and it can be an important tool and reference for instructors and students alike. However, I hope to suggest a more systematic approach to the syllabus as a cultural artifact and a literary form—in short, as a text. By exploring and articulating the poetics of the syllabus, I hope to promote a less proscriptive, legalistic approach to creating and reading these texts and elaborate on the overlooked value (and possibly even pleasure) of their analysis and reading, both close and distant.
Once a spare list of lecture topics, the syllabus as a form has grown to include a number of standard features: course description, required texts, course policies, goals and objectives, schedule, and more. However, the syllabus is also a narrative, and it can be read as such. It represents a path through a subject; it follows the way one way a body of knowledge—with its own history—might be moved through. It tells a story of academic apprenticeship, a process of collaborative composition through loans, gifts, thefts, and conversations. As individual instantiations of a form, syllabi embody our educational and intellectual conventions and philosophies, illustrate the movement between educational theory and practice, and, in some cases—for example, those in David Foster Wallace’s recently released papers—enact their authors’ classroom personae. Teaching, learning, writing, and research are increasingly intertwined in higher education, with many departments providing training in pedagogy. Many syllabi are meticulously crafted in both content and style; they are included in job applications and tenure review packages; they are archived among the papers of prominent scholars and writers.
Current trends in syllabus design—in particular, the comprehensive and learning-centered models—prioritize communication and clarity, expectation setting, and transparency, especially in assessment practices. However, both also tend to produce syllabi that are more legal than literary. Designed to influence and organize behavior, these documents are perhaps read most carefully when their terms are violated. The Illinois State University Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology provides a particularly explicit example when it describes the syllabus as “A framework… A ‘contract’…A permanent record…A public record…A protection for the instructor.” This approach reflects the norms of the “comprehensive” syllabus, what Barbara Gross Davis calls “an implicit teaching-learning contract, outlining the reciprocal roles and responsibilities of students and the instructor; a diagnostic tool…an unambiguous source of policies and procedures; a learning tool…providing them with the information…they will need to succeed in the course; and a set of promises—what the instructor promises students will learn and the activities students will undertake to fulfill those promises.” (21) Learning-centered pedagogy produces similar results: although its theory emphasizes active and empowered learning, it too treats the syllabus as a contract, dense with detail and strongly concerned with behavior and consequence.
For these reasons and others, it’s not difficult to make a case for reading syllabi from a distance. Analyzing large numbers of digital or digitized syllabi permits us to trace topics, trends, patterns, formal choices, and convergences in educational practice over time. Most college and university departments keep copies of each distributed course syllabus on file; many maintain electronic collections on the departmental or institutional level. The conventions of these documents are consistent enough that Dan Cohen was able to design software that identified more than one million online syllabi based on common language features. (His tool, the Syllabus Finder, was retired in 2009 when changes to Google’s API rendered its algorithms ineffective; Cohen has since made public a database of the links his program identified as syllabi, many of which are unfortunately now broken.) Seeing Syllabi will allow users to explore a corpus of syllabi and run interactive visualizations and other analyses of language use, text adoption, topic patterns, and more.
But how to read the syllabus closely? How to recoup a form so deeply bound with the methods and materials of its production and instrumentality into the provenance of the literary? How to illuminate the vital, creative thought, the histories and stories at its core without sacrificing the necessity of its function? On its face, the course syllabus has perhaps more in common with the types of content Alan Liu describes as “knowledge work” than with traditional literary genres: a high level of structure; “greased” (in James Moor’s terms) mechanical or digital replication and distribution; a strongly proscriptive approach to design and best practices; a focus on the efficient transmission of information; legal language that creates and enforces power and control structures; and operationality within the corporate structure of contemporary higher education. Yet I continue to worry at the problem: how to read the poetics of the syllabus?