Friday, August 29, 2014
Rebecca Schuman authored a recent article in Slate entitled Syllabus Tyrannus: The decline and fall of the American university is written in 25-page course syllabi.
In the article Schuman complains that in the last twenty years syllabi have grown from 1-2 page simple documents with only the course location, required books, and assignments to “Ten, 15, even 20 pages of policies, rubrics, and required administrative boilerplate, some so ludicrous (“course-specific expected learning outcomes”) that I myself have never actually read parts of my own syllabi all the way through.”
While I won’t go as far as Professor Paul Horwitz goes in criticizing Schuman’s writing, I do want to push back a bit on her critique of “course-specific expected learning outcomes.”
I admit that bloated syllabi can be a bit cumbersome, but drafting what we at Belmont call “course objectives” can be a helpful process and can lead to important changes in the course. Believe it or not, each semester I look at my course objectives, evaluate whether they were met, and revise my courses as necessary. My course objectives have reminded me that I shouldn’t drop that undergraduate group presentation assignment, no matter how difficult it gets logistically. My course objectives have also reminded me that I just can’t switch to all multiple-choice exams, even if those tests are incredibly common in undergraduate courses today. (To be fair to those who teach undergraduate courses, they typically have 4-8 assessments in a course as opposed to 1-2 in a law school course).
Anyway, I think some of Schuman’s comments on syllabi bloat are valid, but this increase in disclosure is seen throughout our society as shown in Ben-Shahar & Schneider’s More than You Wanted to Know. While some of the disclosures may be a waste of time and resources, I found the drafting of course objectives helpful and think it will benefit the students through the more thoughtful structure of my courses (even if the students do not take the time to read the objectives themselves).
Finally and somewhat related, Professor Jennifer Bard notes (with some helpful links) that the ABA is now requiring law schools to draft learning outcomes. If law schools take this process seriously, I think it could be a useful exercise. If law schools just see it as another drain on resources and complete it mindlessly, then it is unlikely that those law schools or their students will benefit.