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Teaching Tuesday: Syllabus as Contract

A student confronted me this week with an old chestnut: the syllabus is a contract. I hadn’t heard this argument for many years and, perhaps naively, thought that it might have fallen out of circulation. The context for this argument is my graduate historiography seminar. In this class, I’ve revised the syllabus to take into account a slightly different class dynamic than I have experienced in other classes. In some cases, I reduced the length of some readings, swapped in alternate readings elsewhere, and opened a discussion as to whether the assignments as I have drawn them up in the syllabus are suitable for this particular group. Graduate historiography can be a frustrating class, so I’ll assume that the “syllabus is contract” response is in part linked to that frustration.

On the other hand, the notion of syllabus as contract is an interesting one. In fact, it ties into some of the discussions that we have been having over on Teaching Thursday (especially here and here). Over the last month, we’ve been discussing the rise of for-profit online eduction companies which offer courses at amazingly low prices. In general, they offer introductory level courses that have a strong emphasis on content (as opposed to methods or even less tangible goals like “critical thinking skills”). Presumably the relationship between the student and the “content provider” is dictated by some kind of contract. That is to say, if the student successfully completes the course, he or she should expect to have command over the content that the course purports to provide.

In upper level courses, however, or in courses where the goal is more methodological, the neat contractual obligation of the syllabus writer (and the students who accept the syllabus) breaks down. On the one hand, it is more difficult to determine whether the goals of the syllabus have been achieved; mastery of a method, for example, relies on a level of understanding that is notoriously difficult to evaluate. So to some extent successful completion of the course will never be precisely concomitant with the mastery of the material that the course presents. On the other hand, certain aspects of the syllabus should be expected to remain more or less stable over the course of the class. The instructor probably shouldn’t change the value of assignments ex post facto (at least to the detriment of the students) or change the frequency of course meetings or topic of the class in a gross way. The syllabus should, in other words, reflect fairly the nature, expectations, and content of the class.

These vague criteria, however, are hardly the stuff of an enforceably contract (although, it goes without saying that there are many different kinds of contracts in the world and I am sure that there is a kind of contract that could satisfy these vague criteria). I suppose faculty should be able to argue that any changes to a syllabus must be changes in form rather than changes in substance. And I suppose the syllabus could be a tool to hold students to certain expectations and in that regard it benefits from some kind of contractual or pseudo-legal force.

What’s more disturbing to me is that there should be a contractual mindset between faculty and student at all. Perhaps what bothers me is that this evokes the current rage transforming academia into a vendor-customer environment. In other words, it marks out the most blatant examples of market capitalism coming rest in the academic world. For this week in our seminar we’ve read a few articles by the British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson. In several places, he distinguishes between the “moral economy” of the pre-industrial period and the market economy of the industrial period. For Thompson the moral economy was based upon a set of expectations that did not necessary coincide with the tenants of capitalism. For example, the moral economy stipulated that grain be sold at a fair price by landlords and those dependent on this grain had the right to protest unfair prices (in both violent ways and with the threat of violence). This tacit agreement made it difficult for landowners to pocket significant profits at the expense of the poor and also created a set of expectations which the poor tended to follow to articulate the limits of their tolerance.

The ritualized interaction of the moral economy has long been a staple in the classroom. It has always been the right of students “to vote with their feet” and abandon courses that they regarded as unfair. Our university sanctions this particular power of students through late drop periods and the ability to withdraw from classes without significant consequences. Students also have means of protesting. They can complain in and outside of class. Intentionally do poorly on assignments or refuse to cooperate in classroom discussions. Faculty can, and do, lash out by pushing the syllabus to its limits, but generally this kind of exchange ends poorly. In most cases, there is a resolution or compromise struck between students and faculty and balance is restored.

The need to view a syllabus as a contract, however, suggests perhaps that some of these old methods of the moral economy are breaking down and methods influenced by more formal, market driven understandings of the relationship between faculty and students are replacing them. Thompson alluded to the idea that students represented one of the last remaining bastions of the pre-industrial way of life. Perhaps these days are ending.

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