Writing a Syllabus that Respects Your Students

It’s that class development time of year! Okay, maybe it should be “class revision time of year” or “putting final touches on my class” time of year . . . But teachers are busy, so if you’re writing your syllabus right now, I wanted to share some thoughts on how to use it as a communication tool that speaks directly to your students.

This post comes from a tip I wrote for the Teaching Tips Consortium that I would like to share with all of you.

Before we dive into the tip, though, I want to tell a little story about the teacher who inspired it. Father Paul Thomas is a very kind monk who was teaching us about canon law and monasticism. He’s the kind of canon lawyer who has a brilliant gift for explaining the merciful and human realities behind a law.

During one class, Fr. Paul said something that has always stuck with me and formed my view of teaching.

He was preparing to preach that Sunday on one of the Resurrection narratives when Mary Magdalene meets Christ. In that account, Mary assumes Christ is the gardener and does not recognize him, until he says her name, “Mary.” She then replies by calling him, “Teacher.” Fr. Paul located that moment of identification in the act of Christ saying her name with love and told us that “every human being deserves to be addressed by their name with love.”

Mary Magdalene kneeling

Every human being deserves to be addressed by their name with love.

Image: Noli Me Tangere, 1400-1450 I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0

I think this is fitting because Sam Rocha’s philosophy of education strongly influences this post, and his thinking is in the same intellectual tradition as Fr. Paul’s.

I try to think about Fr. Paul’s lesson whenever I prepare for a class or hold office hours or give feedback on assessments. Am I addressing the student with love (in the sense of willing their good and respecting their whole personhood)?

Addressed by Name: Syllabus as “Personal Correspondence”

If the syllabus is to be read by someone, it must be written to and for someone: it must be something that is for someone . . . It is a personal correspondence. It addresses us as if by name.

Sam Rocha, The Syllabus as Curriculum

What if we thought about our syllabus as a form of communication instead of as a contract? While the contract version of a syllabus might be filled with policies and rules and punitive measures, the correspondence version speaks directly to students as persons, leaving room for a response. Of course, we have to include our institutional policies, and many policies, such as accessibility statements, actively promote the dignity of our students, but the way we word our own sections forms our students’ first impressions of us. As you’re preparing your class, here are some ways to write your syllabus “to and for someone”: 

  • Examine Situational Factors in a Caring Way: Who are your students? Is your syllabus really written for those persons? Before each writing session, try articulating the goodness of your students in concrete ways. Imagining future collaborators can help you avoid antagonistic language that can undermine community-building even before your first class. 
  • Open the Syllabus: “Correspondence” implies room for mutual dialogue. When possible, leave room for students to collectively add their own policies and statements. Opening up the syllabus to student collaboration can improve engagement and give students a voice in their own educational experience. To learn more about crafting an open syllabus visit the Open Pedagogy Notebook
  • Personalize the Course: Use technology to address your students by name regardless of class size. With mail merge, you can send a personalized welcome letter along with your syllabus. If working with D2L, you can use replacement strings to personalize your course shell.

References

Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass. 

Nelson, A. (2019). “Collaborative Syllabus Design: Students at the Center.” Open Pedagogy Notebook: Sharing Practices, Building Community. from http://openpedagogy.org/course-level/collaborative-syllabus-design-students-at-the-center/

Rocha, S. (2021). The Syllabus as Curriculum: A Reconceptualist Approach. New York, Routledge. 


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