Seeing the syllabus from the other side

I didn't appreciate syllabi when I was a college student. Professors handed out papers of dates and requirements, which they read to us. We stuffed those papers into folders, tucked them in the end pages of our notebooks, or just dropped them in the circular file. Before college I'd never seen a syllabus – we didn't use that term in high school – so it seemed like just another handout, just another piece of paper.

Somewhere along the way I realized that the list of important dates might actually be a useful thing to hang onto and refer back to throughout the semester. The syllabus-readers usually had a leg up on the non-syllabus readers when it came time for projects: we knew they were coming! It was old news for us.

But I still didn't really appreciate those oft-ignored papers until I made one.

A good syllabus is a plan: What are we coming to class for? What are we going to do? To discuss? To learn? What questions will we answer? What skills will we gain? Where can we turn for help? How will we accomplish these goals? How will we know we have done it well?1

I am teaching two distinct courses this fall: General Chemistry and Analytical Chemistry. Between the two courses, I have already spent a week or more on the syllabi. On the one hand, I wonder if I'm spending too much time on a paper my students may just glance at and recycle. On the other hand, by writing the syllabus, I'm assembling the roadmap for the semester, and that's definitely worth the time spent. It's particularly important for me to plan the Analytical course because (1) I haven't taught the course before, (2) it has a lab component, and (3) I need to give the lab manager advance notice about the materials we'll need for lab.

When I don't double-check a homework problem or an exam question before giving it to my students, that's when I'm most likely to make a mess of things and make a fool of myself. I imagine that labs are the same, but on a larger scale of time, cost and frustration.

My syllabi are nearly done. I need to re-read for typos,2 check that the dates I've listed match the dates I actually mean, and do a few other bits of polishing. The plan is in place, though.

I will try to convey to my students the usefulness of the syllabus, but even if they, too, send it to the circular file, at least I know I've thought the semester through.

1: A poor syllabus is a list of things you will not do: You will not cheat. You will not let your phone interrupt class. You will not be late. You will not get extra credit. Any of these may be fine policies, but I find a list of "don'ts" pretty discouraging.

2: Last year I scrambled my own email address – d'oh!