Although the beginning of the school year means a return to the rigors of classes, homework and all-night study sessions, many students are at least grateful for a reprieve from the “as long as you’re under my roof, you’ll abide by my rules” lectures of their parents. Unfortunately, sometimes that doesn’t end, even in the classroom.
It’s customary on the first day of classes for instructors to hand out syllabi – outlines that detail class objectives and assignments as well as instructor expectations and contact information (which tend to be ignored by students until they need to know what they’ve slept through all year). Those who pay attention to how syllabi are worded often learn tidbits about a instructor’s personality – a lax philosophy about late work can imply that the instructor will be lenient about other issues too, for example.
It’s when an instructor writes like an authoritarian that things become disheartening. Some of the NMU syllabi I perused in researching this column make extreme uses of underlines, italics, boldface and CAPITAL LETTERS, an approach that made me feel I was being punished. I can’t imagine what it is like for students taking those classes, already feeling on the first day as though they’d done something wrong.
I’m sure if instructors received a hand-out from a student that implored them not to lecture in a monotone voice because it’s super boring and makes everyone fall asleep AND FURTHERMORE DON’T KEEP THE CLASS LATE for any reason or you WILL get an F, they would feel apprehensive as well.
One of those syllabi came from associate professor Barbara Coleman in the HPER department. After reading through her syllabus for PE 230: Fitness Leadership, I was hesitant to ask her any questions. Phrases like “DO NOT contact the instructor to ask ‘what’d I miss?'” along with an entire italicized paragraph about proper laptop usage, led me to believe that this woman wasn’t one to mess with.
“I don’t try to sound like that, and I hope it doesn’t come off that way,” she said. “I just really try to push (students) to be ready for the working world, and not a lot of slack can be cut there.”
That doesn’t sound like someone who would eat my face if I was late to class. Coleman explained that it’s difficult to put voice inflection into a syllabus and challenging to know which approach will convey the point.
“It’s hard because you want to convey expectations but don’t want to act like you’ll chop a finger off. I’m serious at first in my syllabi, but my students find out that I am really a pussycat. I don’t like to say, ‘because I said so,’ but with increasing technology in the classroom like laptops and cell phones, I have to keep adding statements.”
In the flesh, Coleman is a pleasant and highly approachable woman. It would be a pity for students to incorrectly judge her, but that’s easy to do when a syllabus bombards you with rules and consequences.
April Lindala, director for the Center for Native American Studies as well as an instructor, offers a syllabus with a very different approach for her NAS 295: Special Topics: Native America in the Mass Media. The language in her syllabus reflects a laid-back, organized instructor who has rules but chooses not to emphasize them with an iron fist.
Her policy regarding respect reads, “Opinions are like armpits . everyone has them, most stink. Regardless, be respectful of those around you.” This casual language gets her message across without being abrasive. The trick is facilitating relationships between herself and students rather than feeding them information.
“In a way, that hands over the balance of control,” she said. “My philosophy is to empower students and hopefully what I say in my syllabi tells them that.”
During my college career, I saw tame professors throw tennis balls at misbehaving students, so I can only imagine what authoritarians do. Students who thrust syllabi into the depths of their backpacks without reading them could be subject to smiting, Chinese water torture and at least half of the 10 plagues, I’m sure. Maybe a font of 70 and clip art of medieval punishments will make that clearer next year.