I know my syllabi are mostly ignored, and I expect to see more examples in the next week: some students will read it at the last moment as they desperately look for loopholes and ways to scrape up more points, and I will get letter-of-the-law emails attempts to justify why they should get more credit. But Professor Kenyon Wilson of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga came up with a more direct test: he put a fifty dollar bill in a locker and inserted directions to it in his syllabus. He wasn’t subtle about it either. It’s an explicit set of directions to the locker in a parenthetical sentence.
It wasn’t even cryptic or clever! Nobody had to decode anything! And the result…
The Tennessee music professor slipped a $50 US bill into a locker on his campus, and buried the location and combination in the syllabus for his performing arts seminar class.
The semester is over. The students have gone home. The cash remains unclaimed.
His syllabus is only 3 pages long!
Wilson says he’s long suspected his syllabus goes mostly unread, even though he always tells his students to read it through. It’s an online document, about three pages in length, outlining course expectations, grading scales and other bits of what Wilson calls “boilerplate language.”
Mine is 5 or 6 pages, making it even worse. I blame that goddamned “boilerplate language.” Every once in a while, the administration tells us that we ought to include X, Y, or Z in our syllabus, and they helpfully send us a paragraph or three that they’ve written in fluent bureaucratese, and I obey, so the bloat grows and grows. I don’t think I’ve read most of my syllabi myself — I just copy and paste what I’m told ought to be in there. I am not surprised that the students have learned that the bulk of our syllabi are mind-numbingly irrelevant repetitious hash.
Fortunately, I was just yesterday poking at my genetics syllabus, half-heartedly adjusting a few dates to bring it in line with 2022, totally uninspired but needing to take advantage of my few days of respite before the grading slams me in the face again this weekend. But now I have a goal. I’m going to rip out all the boilerplate and stuff it into a separate document so it’s available, but also easily ignorable. Then I’m going to write a short punchy summary with only the essential stuff, and get that down to under a page. I can do it. I know what the students need to know, and I also know what other professors need to know if they’re looking at my course to evaluate it for transfer credits.
I’m not going to repeat the trick of hiding a treasure map inside it, though. Sorry, students!