What's Off the Syllabus
When caring means you have to kill your darlings
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about the education of a professor of politics (me, not Henry Adams).
What’s Off the Syllabus
The syllabus has become a battlefield.
I don’t mean the curriculum—in an era in which “woke” has become a slur and critical race theory has moved from the margins of the academy to the center of political fights, it’s obvious that we are fighting about the curriculum all the time.
No, I mean the syllabus, as in the ever-lengthier document that lays out what a college course is, what materials the course will cover, and what class policies the professor expects to cover. Even more specifically, I mean the mythological syllabus, the one referred to by a shockingly large assortment of Etsy products pointing an unnamed but presumably student audience to read the syllabus.
Taking a second to think about how we ended up here means thinking seriously about whose interests they serve. Thinking for more than a second, though, leads to different conclusions—like why long syllabi can be good, why breaking up the syllabus would be better, and why the test of the quality of a syllabus is what isn’t on there.
The syllabus never gets shorter
From time to time, older or more irascible scholars lament the ballooning length of the syllabus. That is, I think, one reason why old syllabi get trotted out from time to time on social media—it’s probably a bias in my timeline that I keep seeing Hannah Arendt’s:
Arendt’s syllabi may be unusual (they’re by Arendt, after all) but they look enormously different from modern ones, at least any that I see these days. Brief, devoid of any interpretive material, and without any boilerplate pseudo-legalese, they look like a different genre altogether from, well, my syllabi, which routinely hit double-digit page counts and which spend more time explaining course assessment than Arendt did the course.
Like many evolutionary adaptations, the lengthening syllabus results from contextual factors. Syllabi now serve many different masters: faculty senates and administrators mandate certain language (especially about academic honesty) to be included. Students also expect to have a full overview of the class deadlines and reading assignments. Accrediting agencies want to see learning objectives. And like many academic texts they are co-authored by uncredited reviewers: Curriculum committees (in my painful experience) can challenge even the choice of verbs.
The result satisfies nobody. I’m not actually a fan of Arendt’s syllabi: I think they’re not particularly rigorous or comprehensive, I doubt any but the most masochistic students actually did the readings (even though I think that students in the past did more readings than they do now!), and the aim of the courses seems to be more the cultivation of virtue than the transmission and display of content mastery. But I also wish that I could have a two-page syllabus.
Well, most of the time.
In praise of long syllabi
Long syllabi reflect three developments, two positive and one less so:
the democratization of higher education
a recognition of the challenges involved in getting students to realistically do the work
the bureaucratization of professorial practice
The third is the bad one, of course—few are the professors who embrace the current adversarial situations we almost all find ourselves in when some student decides to find a loophole or omission in our course policies to justify turning in a one-point assignment three months late. The boilerplate around cheating and plagiarism (including lengthy descriptions of online plagiarism detection services like Turnitin) are obvious manifestations of this. If the syllabus is a contract (which it isn’t, quite, but we call it that), then students expect that they should know how they’ll be judged should they be deemed to transgress.
More to the point, professors use the boilerplate as a means of covering themselves with their own administrators—chairs, deans, provosts, even presidents who may be emailed by irate students and who in turn ask faculty to do some customer service. (Spend almost any time on /r/professors and you’ll see this advice; more important, teach a class a second time and I almost guarantee your syllabus will get 10 percent longer to clarify and specify course policies because of some run-in or another.)
Old syllabi could be short because so much was left to the discretion of the instructor. As an instructor, I see the advantages. And yet: as annoying as specifying policies are, in an era in which revelations of significant faculty abuse make headlines every couple of weeks (and rounds of gossip even more often), it’s hard to say that unfettered classroom authority was ever good—the kind in which students’ grades could be determined arbitrarily, with no hope of appeal or justification.
The democratization of higher education is another reason why long syllabi have some advantages. In particular, short syllabi reflected an understanding of unspoken norms and rules, and an assumption of forelock-tugging deference by anyone who did not already know those rules. Long syllabi that pedantically spell out course policies, on the other hand, make the rules (or at least more of them) transparent; given that no two faculty members run their classes the same way (and all of them think their way is the only sensible one), this can only help students—and especially those students who don’t have much in the way of an understanding of the folkways of academia.
The last reason why syllabi are and should be longer is harder for nonspecialists to see immediately: it’s that assigning articles and chapters make for longer syllabi, almost of necessity. If I can get students to read 60 or 80 pages for class, well, first of all I deserve a teaching award and second I have a choice about whether I’ll do that as three chapters from a book or as three articles from different sources. Just mechanically, the three articles will make for a longer syllabus because they have to convey more information (authors’ name, periodical title, article title, etc) than “Frieden et. al, Chapters 2 and 3”.
And yet by assigning three articles, I can introduce more observations, more ideas, and more (and more varied) voices into the conversation. I can, in other words, have the possibility of having a richer course—but my syllabus is going to be correspondingly much longer.
Assigning more varied types of readings makes it more likely that I’m going to get someone to find something interesting in a course. As someone teaching principally gen-eds, my entire mission is to reach non-majors and share with them what folks in my discipline have to say. By covering more ground and presenting more angles, I’m better able to do that. And that in turn makes a long syllabus sometimes the right answer since that’s how I can try to make sure that students engage with the material. My syllabi may not have as many midcentury intellectuals on them as Arendt’s did, but I also know that my readings are rather more focused on eliciting student engagement (even if my students might disagree in any given week).
The benefits of pruning
That doesn’t mean that longer syllabi are ipso facto better. Quantity, Stalin said (at least apocryphally), has a quality all its own. A long syllabus is also one that in itself is less likely to be read. That explains the syllabus wars: instructors want (and are incentivized to have) a document that lays out everything about the course, while students want a resource that’s short and accessible.
Syllabi, in other words, need to be pruned. One tactic that I’m slowly adopting is just to break up the mammoth syllabus, dispersing its constituent parts to different parts of the course Web site—reading assignments spaced out day by day, for instance. Curriculum committees will still see “the syllabus”, but my goal is to just have different, shorter documents that convey information necessary to students for each facet of the course.
The other way that syllabi need to be pruned, however, is the flip side of bringing in more shorter readings and more voices. Syllabi need to be kept short by keeping off as many readings as possible. By that, I do not mean keeping reading loads short for the sake of being short. Rather, I mean that the temptation is to constantly add more readings and voices to a given day’s load, so that by the fifth or sixth edition of a syllabus what started out as a trim list of two or three readings per day has become instead an unwieldy, creaking mess of optional, recommended, and interesting readings.
Excessively long lists of daily readings may impress colleagues (and flatter those who are included), and they may even awe students, but they reflect a failure of planning more than an intellectual triumph. As I revise my syllabi, I’m constantly trying to see what points and arguments I need to cover—and frequently trying to take readings off if I can find a single one that hits two or more of the points I’ve made in earlier versions with separate readings.
This has a lot of costs. Once my notes and slides are done for a course, I don’t want to tinker with the readings, lest I find myself referring to materials I no longer assign. (It happens!) Worse, adding a new reading means I have to read it, and, well, reading just isn’t something that professors have time for. It also means that friends, colleagues, and potential tenure reviewers get shoved off of reading lists, which would be awkward if they noticed but there’s always the chance they will.
It also stands at odds with how I often think that non-academics view the process of building a course, which is purely additive. It is, instead, a process of wrenching subtraction: of taking entire disciplines and cutting away until only 13 weeks, perhaps 35 to 40 discrete readings and 26 lectures (less time for housekeeping), remain.
That means that almost infinitely more material is left on the cutting room floor—and that is knowledge of the kind that we professionally find valuable, the stuff that careers and reputations are made of. It not infrequently also means that the darlings you kill are your own—confronting your own narrow topics’ marginality in a discipline is like confronting mortality. (Occasionally, students have asked me to share more of my research, but, although I have no particular compunction against assigning myself, in many cases it would be malpractice for me to go into the narrow crevices of my own work in an undergrad course, especially in a survey course.)
It is this work of curation that I find most difficult, and most hidden, in the entire process. The topics I choose to leave out are largely ones that I have the most debates with myself about, because almost everything in a discipline has a good reason to be taught—after all, the stuff of the discipline is the product of my colleagues’ research and debate. To omit them from an intro course does, in fact, raise questions about who is empowered to stand watch at disciplinary frontiers. And yet there’s the simple fact that not everything fits and that a pudding has got to have a theme.
From this perspective, then, the politics of “it’s in the syllabus” are misplaced both coming and going. The syllabus should be remade to be useful, but the challenging for professors should concern what’s not in the syllabus and why it isn’t there.