Now, my syllabi aren't those eight-page jobbies bursting with university bylaws, detailing every assignment, and showing off their author's facility with graphic-design software--but neither are they a single double-sided sheet consisting of contact information and a rough schedule of readings.
Syllabi are, of course, the first introduction that students get to me and my class, so I want an attractive and readable layout, an engaging descriptive paragraph or two, and a sufficiently detailed course outline. Syllabi are also a kind of contract: a document that can be referred to whenever there's a question about grading standards or the precise penalties for everything from absenteeism to plagiarism. But the real reason I take syllabus design so seriously--and why it feels so effortful--is my awareness that my syllabus is often the only thing standing between me and pedagogical disaster.
I don't know about the rest of you, but I have an awful lot of exchanges like this:
Student: "Hey, when are our second papers due?"Or this:
Me (feigning preoccupation): "In a couple of weeks. It's on the syllabus."
Student: "Okay, great. . . but I've got training around then, so I need to plan ahead--is it before or after the eighteenth?"
Me: "It's on the syllabus. Check it when you get home."
Student 1: "Which play are we starting next week? I don't have my syllabus with me."In other words, I often have no idea what we're doing more than a class or two in advance. Once the semester starts, I rely on my syllabus to order my readings logically and to ensure that certain topics (not to mention assignments) appear at just the right moment. This isn't to say that I never make changes mid-semester, but usually they're minor responses to immediate exigencies. A well-considered syllabus keeps me on track--as well as performing the even more useful function of allowing me to appear to be on track.
Student 2: "Did we change that? It says here that we're reading Othello. . ."
Me: "Oh! Well, if the syllabus says we're reading Othello, then we're reading Othello."
But as I've been working on these three syllabi, I've been thinking what a pity it is that I don't have one for my life, or at least the next three to five years of it. I wouldn't expect it to be more than a rough document, but I'd happily put in whatever effort were required if I could sketch out with some assurance when (and if) certain events might occur: home ownership? a book contract? marriage? tenure?
I mean, sure: I have a sense of the appropriate order of things when it comes to my professional life, but I don't have the slightest idea what the personal side will look like or even what I want it to look like--much less how the two sides will intersect.
What I need is a much more experienced, much more long-range syllabus builder to rough that stuff out for me, lay down the standards, expectations, and penalties, and tell me what it's all about. Then I'd know whether it's a class I can commit to.