I really needed to read this as I was working on my spring syllabi

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!


  1. cartomancer says

    Oh, come on PZ, you can hide something much better than a $50 bill on campus – what aspiring biology student wouldn’t be thrilled to take possession of their own family of experimental spiders!

  2. birgerjohansson says

    The SCP Foundation has cleverly hidden the password for starting to log in inside the “Rules” page, ensuring the lazy buggers who want to join have actually read what they need to read.
    I do not speak Mercan fluently, can you describe what a syllabus is? I only get it is cognate with “syllable”.
    A parrot? A Norwegian parrot? And does it need to be alive when you study it?

  3. says

    We did that in the technical manual of one product for which I managed development. Buried in the margin halfway in was a note saying “email ${address} with your size, shipping address and that you saw this message and we’ll send you a free Tshirt!” We had a couple boxes of Tshirts standing by but – you guessed it – nobody ever emailed us. Not once, in 3 years.

    Here’s a secret about software companies, that may help users of software understand things a bit better: most software companies’ hate their customers. Oh, sure, there are a few bright-eyed young developers who want to make the world a better place, but mostly corporate software development consists of putting in requested features that are only going to be used by one or two customers, who will complain anyway. Imagine what it’s like to work for Microsoft and know that a) everyone hates what you’re working on b) you hate what you’re working on c) you’re only doing it because management wants you to churn out new versions of bloat d) reviewers will pan your work e) you know they are lying; they never even installed the software. Etc.

  4. Rich Woods says

    In dissertations, project reports, technical analyses, user manuals and the like I used to write, “Thanks be to Arioch, Lord of Chaos, for allowing me to complete this project on time.” No-one ever called me out on it, so after maybe ten years I stopped. And then I think my deadlines may have started to slip. Hmm.

  5. bmatchick says

    I had an irritating philosophy professor in college who I was sure wasn’t was reading my papers and just giving out a lot of B+s or whatever. Others felt the same, so three of us put a sentence right in the middle of an essay that said, “If you’re actually reading this, please underline this sentence in red.” None of us got the underline and he never said a word about it.

  6. acroyear says

    Thing is, not reading the darn things predates the marketing boilerplate by, well, 30 years at least (knowing myself in my college years). The problem is that it comes when there is no mental context for it to have any meaning.

    “Hi, you don’t have a mental routine yet, you have not compartmentalized anything, you have no set schedule or idea for what the new normal is going to be…but here’s all the dates that are going to upset that normality, once you finally have it.”

    Of course seeing it on the first day and even the first week and it’ll be meaningless words. It needs to be revisited AFTER there’s an actual sense of normality, of routine, of not trying to reconcile the nice professor in front of you who is so different from the mean jerk that all the previous classes kept saying they had.

    And the problem is that nobody tells them that properly in high school and before…they’re just supposed to figure that out, but nobody does, because once a ‘normal’ has set, nobody goes back to look at the thing anymore. So perhaps a failing in that it is not an educational ‘fact’ skill, but rather a social and mental development/discipline one, that nobody actually talks about. They (the 9-12 grades) just presume it is there, and don’t care if it isn’t.

  7. PaulBC says

    Maybe they’re all just budding economists with a deep belief in the efficient market. To paraphrase the old joke, they have reasoned that if there is really a $50 bill in some locker, then somebody else would have got to it already. No sense going to all that effort for nothing.

  8. richardh says

    Back in the 1960s my school had a teacher (nominal subject “Divinity”) who allegedly, when it was his time to say grace before school meals, solemnly intoned “From what we are about to receive may the good Lord deliver us” and nobody noticed.
    (If this story is actually true, it’s a paradox. If nobody noticed, who would repeat it?)

  9. PaulBC says

    Marcus Ranum@4

    Here’s a secret about software companies, that may help users of software understand things a bit better: most software companies’ hate their customers.

    I’m not sure that’s true, but I can state from experience that there is always palpable excitement by developers, and sometimes a little celebration, when we pull the plug on an old service and never have to think of it again. The announcement of new features gets some buzz, but it always feels forced by comparison. (Product managers may have a different take on it.)

  10. consciousness razor says


    No sense going to all that effort for nothing.

    It doesn’t sound like it would’ve been much effort — just go to the locker and take the loot. That’s a very easy fifty bucks.

    And considering that it’s a music (not econ) course, these are presumably lockers that normally hold instruments, so a lot of the students might be going to them a couple of times every day (or more).

    On the other hand, it’s not clear whether it was a class for music majors or whatever, so it may not be right that this specific group of students would’ve been using them often. But on the other, other hand, the way that parenthetical was written, it sounds like the students are assumed to be familiar enough with them to only need the info that it’s locker #147 (and nothing else about how to find it).

  11. Nemo says

    IMHO, it is semi-cryptic — it says where to go, but not what you’ll find there. Maybe if he’d added the words “fifty dollars”, it would’ve been claimed. Ah well, no way to repeat it now that it’s been publicized.

  12. Nemo says

    @richardh #9:

    Back in the 1960s my school had a teacher (nominal subject “Divinity”) who allegedly, when it was his time to say grace before school meals, solemnly intoned “From what we are about to receive may the good Lord deliver us” and nobody noticed.

    You think that’s bad — every Catholic mass ends with the priest saying “The mass is ended; go in peace,” and the people answering “Thanks be to God!”

  13. says

    Once I did something similar with a regular meeting minutes I had to write. Like “the first one to contact the author will receive €10”. Never heard a thing…

  14. says

    When I enrolled for a PhD my institution had a lost of courses available to make up the needed credit hours of coursework before the thesis. The course information consisted of a subject title which was the only basis for deciding which course you felt was suitable. This resulted in a few mostly pleasant surprises. There were five compulsory subjects, one of which I got an exemption from by producing a previously written Masters thesis but had to choose another subject to make up the credit hours. One of them was a walk in the park. The remaining two were given by the same lecturer. Pleasant surprises when I aced the first one but when I signed up for the second I found it was repeats of the same set of lectures as the first one. I rebelled and dropped the subject in favour of something more interesting. I didn’t have to pick it up later because in the interim the lecturer died and his subject offerings were dropped. It was a much bigger blow when my supervisor died while my thesis was away for review. My new supervisor appointed after the viva was the internal reviewer who had savaged my thesis. Fortunately the two external reviewers actually understood my thesis and gave glowing reports. I passed but to get the final version approved I had to eviscerate the thesis and restructure the introduction to the new supervisor’s satisfaction.

  15. ANB says

    When I taught at university, I wasn’t mandated to include anything specific (fortunately).

    In your case, you could print the essential stuff in a color other than black, and the boilerplate remaining in black.

  16. bodach says

    Thanks, PZ! Made me laugh before my second cup of coffee.
    (don’t remember that ever happening before)

  17. Rich Woods says

    @garydargan #16:

    I had to eviscerate the thesis and restructure the introduction to the new supervisor’s satisfaction.

    I suppose the only reasonable alternative was to assess who would most likely be next in line and then decide whether or not to find a patio under which to bury the body of your new supervisor.

  18. vucodlak says

    I think I usually looked over the syllabus, but if I read that, I’d assume it was some sort of trap, and be seriously weirded out by it. The last thing I would do is actually go near the locker.

    That’s only if the syllabus was a handout, though. Unless a professor said ‘you must do this online thing’ I didn’t do the online thing. I don’t learn at all well on computers, and I assume anything really important will be a physical document unless I’m explicitly told otherwise.

    My anti-internet-learning position was reinforced when I took a course wherein all the tests were timed essay tests via Poodle or whatever it was. The software had a feature that allowed you to save your answers periodically, which I used religiously, but on the final the little “saved” checkmark refused to put in an appearance. I was worried, but the clock was already ticking, and there was no way to pause it to call the professor or tech support. It seemed to be working otherwise, so I soldiered on. When I finished, I clicked “submit” and… my several thousand words of test answers vanished. All that remained was the timer, still merrily counting up the time.

    I had a full-blown meltdown, complete with inarticulate wailing, hair ripping, and curling up in the fetal position in the corner sobbing. Thankfully, a kind soul was able to decipher my inarticulate gibbering and get ahold of the professor, who assured me that they’d received my test. After that, I decided that I would drop any course that included a significant online portion.

  19. HappyHead says

    Back when I was teaching, I would include a question about something from the syllabus in the midterm, and I’d tell the students about it verbally during the first lecture. Still had over half of the class get it wrong, but then I also asked a question on the midterm and exam about things that were on the front page of the exam – you would not believe how many students had the student ID number “blue”. (They were of course sitting beside someone who’s test asked them what colour ink the front page of the test said they should be using.)

    If they can’t be bothered to read the questions on their own tests, how can they be expected to read something as complex and distant seeming as a three page course outline?

  20. gijoel says

    There was an experiment on lucky people years ago where subjects were asked to read a paper. On the first page was an ad that said if they stopped reading and raised their hand they’d get $50. On the second page was the same ad with $100 reward, and on the third was a $150.

    People who thought of themselves as unlucky missed the ads, whereas those that thought themselves lucky tended to notice them. Luck favours the observant it would appear.

  21. Chakat Firepaw says

    @gijoel #23

    I remember a report on that study or one similar: The task was to count the number of ads and there were a pair of, (IIRC full page), ads that gave the count with the latter one also offering a cash reward. My immediate thought was that my reaction to them would be “ha ha, right, I’m not falling for that trap,” because I’ve had far too many cases of taking the ‘easy way’ blowing up in my face.

    And for our host, perhaps include something like the following line which is encrypted in something easy to crack:

    Vs lbh’er ybbxvat sbe serr znexf be bgure obahf erjneq sbe ernqvat guvf, gurer vfa’g bar, ohg ubj nobhg terrgvat zr jvgu gur jbeq dhvexldhnex gb pbashfr rirelbar ryfr.