Syllabi: “I and you” or “she and they”?

Pile of papers

Pile of papers (Photo credit: jepoirrier)

Here at we are gearing up for a new term in a new year.  No matter how many times I prepare for the start of classes, I never seem to remember all the items on the long list of tasks to be completed.  I flog myself for forgetting  how to bend the technology to my will.  I struggle again to find ways to mine the pleasure…if indeed pleasure there be…in completing the revisions and the postings.

Which brings us to the syllabus.  My honest reaction to being told the requirements for my first syllabus was “You can’t be serious!”   In addition to all the information that I wanted to include about how my classes would operate, I was given an impressive number of statements regarding learning outcomes, student discipline, inclement weather policies, disability policies, and all the other items that I tend to forget between syllabus construction sessions. (Since then, almost every term has brought another new item for inclusion.) By the time the document was complete, I wasn’t sure that I could find the most important information myself.

Fortunately, our faculty decided to read Teaching Unprepared Students: Strategies for Promoting Success and Retention in Higher Education by Kathleen F. Gabriel.  The book is full of wisdom and useful strategies for teaching all students, and Dr. Gabriel’s advice on writing syllabi has been especially helpful to me.  Her suggestions include:

  • Make syllabi that are welcoming, clear, and thorough.  Gabriel describes an incident where a student whom she counseled felt he had no work due until October 3rd.  He had failed to notice information about pop quizzes and class participation points that was listed on the last page of the syllabus.attention sign I need to place the most vital information that students need to succeed where it can’t be missed!
  • “Strive to be up front and honest on our syllabi by using the pronouns, I, we, and you accurately and in a way that clearly describes who will be doing what and who is responsible for what.”  Citing the work of D. Baecker in College Teaching, she notes that we tend to use “we” when we mean “you.”  Worse yet, I had prissily used “the instructor” and “the students(s),” as though both were folks I hadn’t met personally!  Switching to “I will” do such and such while “You are expected to…” made my syllabi  more powerful for me and for my students.  The documents suddenly felt much more immediate and grounded in the reality of the task at hand.pointing-finger

So off I go to give it another try.  I know these syllabi won’t be perfect, but I’m convinced they can be better than last term’s efforts.

Have you found ways to make your syllabi more effective or user-friendly?  We would love to see your comments!


One comment on “Syllabi: “I and you” or “she and they”?

  1. Brian says:

    This is a great sentence: “The documents suddenly felt much more immediate and grounded in the reality of the task at hand.” B

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