For all you college students out there, it’s time to gird up your binders and get ready for a parade of professors thrusting their course syllabi at you. On the off chance that you will actually read these syllabi—my research shows that only about one-third of students do, and only when gently bribed—you might be interested to know that syllabi are full of subtexts and encoded messages. You can find out a lot about what your professors are thinking and feeling if you know how to read between the lines…

Course Title
If my course has a boring name, like “British Literature 1500-1700,” then the title was established decades ago by committee and I am helpless to change it. If my course has a fun and sexy name, such as “Betrayals, Bodices, and Body Counts in Brit-Lit,” that means my course enrollment has been down in recent years and I am debasing myself in order to attract enough students so as to avoid being shunted off to teach some larger-enrollment, heavier-grading-load course.

Course Concept
See that large slab of prose on the first page of my syllabus? That’s me committing an act of propaganda, trying to convince you that this is the most important course you will ever take and that my sagacity and charm will change your life forever. Also, I am revealing that this is the new theme I came up with to keep myself entertained while I teach this same course for the umpteenth semester. Or, alternatively, this is the theme I came up with on August 30 in order to roughly stitch together and therefore justify a bunch of topics I wanted to teach anyway.

Required Texts
You have no idea how much anguish it cost me to narrow it down to just these few. Yes, you have to buy them. Yes, it matters which edition. OK, you can rent them, now that the higher ed industrial complex gives you that option. But don’t you want these precious volumes on your shelves for the rest of your life? Don’t you?

Course Objectives
Look, I am obliged by administrators and accrediting agencies to list specific objectives for this course. Objectives are good and all, but truthfully, I just reverse-engineered these objectives from stuff I have always done in class: “Students will become familiar with numerous novels,” etc. Or perhaps these objectives came down to me from a curriculum committee on high, and I am gesturing toward them as best I can.

In any case, ignore them. Here’s all I ask. Show up to class! Do the readings! Do all the assignments! Seriously, just do the work. All the listed objectives will fall into place if you do the work. No, I mean it. You think I show up for class every day to do stand-up comedy? I am trying to teach you stuff, and it could be really cool, but absolutely nothing at all will happen unless you fulfill this single, ultimate objective: DO. THE. WORK.  

Schedule
This is no work of aspirational fiction. I intend to march through this schedule like a Roman legion, day after day, week after week, come hell or high water. You know what I did the morning of 9/11? I taught Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing. That’s right. We did not know whether the world would last out the day, but I still taught class.  

On the other hand, maybe there is a fictional element to this schedule. Do you see how the readings and assignments get vaguer in the last weeks of class? That’s because, honestly, I haven’t quite figured out what we’ll do after week ten. You know what? I’ll figure it out. And I will act like I planned it all along.

Assignment Details
Be thankful you get these. Back in the day, when I was an undergraduate, professors just said “write an 8- to 10-page paper.” That was it! We just did it! We took a stab at what they “wanted” and we took our lumps. And we learned, I tell you. We learned the hard way.

Not like today, when we coddle you with assignment objectives, low-stakes practice exercises, pages of instructions and suggestions, sample assignments, a phalanx of paraprofessionals to help you when you get stuck, and opportunities to re-do the assignment if you get a low grade.

So for crying out loud, follow the instructions! They are artisanally crafted, byzantine works of art. I expect you to dwell lovingly upon them.

Workload Calculator
Definitely a work of fiction. I am obliged by my institution to provide estimates for how long all my assignments will take, so as to prevent me from tormenting you beyond the restrictions of the credit hour load of this course. You realize that professors take quiet pride in being known as tough, right? Left to our own devices, we would compete to bury our students in the most work. All of it pedagogically rich and meaningful, of course.

Anyway, I comply, and here are my time estimates, but realize that I am calculating how long it will take you to do these assignments while working in monastic silence in a lonely library carrel. If you try to do assignments while binge-watching Parks and Rec, don’t be surprised if it takes longer.

Format Requirements
These are the obscure and idiosyncratic preferences I have about writing style, line spacing, margins, and how to bind pages together (staple, binder clip, folder? I have strong feelings…). I am revealing my pet peeves to you, so if you can just get this stuff right, I will be much more kindly inclined toward whatever mess you might make of the assignment’s actual contents. In my mind, a serif font will automatically gain you half a letter grade.

Grades and Deadlines
For years, I have been building fences to close all the loopholes students have found to get away with stuff. Turn in a paper but don’t show up for class? There’s a penalty listed right here for that. Skip class because you had to pick up a friend at the airport? I mention that right here as something that will not excuse your absence. Pop-tart fire in your apartment this morning? Heard it before. Note the harsh and unyielding penalties detailed here for late assignments and papers. Note that if you miss a test you will be beheaded. 

I am making this section as harsh and draconian as possible to scare you into submission to my iron law. In reality, I may be a Stay-Puft marshmallow. Maybe. But do you really want to take that chance?

Plagiarism
Don’t even think about it. It’s horrible. First of all, it’s insulting. Do you really think I’m so stupid I can’t tell when your ordinary, I’m-still-learning prose suddenly shifts to academic elegance? Also, it deeply bums me out that you would betray our trust as teacher and student. But you know what bothers me most about plagiarism? It takes my time. I have to meet with you (which is painful) and then write up the paperwork, and it all takes my time. I have to report you, and I will. It stinks, but I will definitely do it.

Office Hours
This silly ritual is a relic from the days before email, when professors resembled moles, slipping underground to read and write most of the time and only popping up occasionally for office hours and class. I, on the other hand, am permanently ensconced in the office because I must be ready to go to committee meetings and because I must try to figure out how to navigate our online “learning management system” after yet another dratted upgrade. Just email me and we’ll make an appointment.

Bibliography
This section has several purposes. It demonstrates my erudition (and eases my insecurity) by reminding you that I am an expert and you are not. It soothes my grief over not being able to teach everything in that blink of time that is fourteen weeks. It also lists books I wish I’d read in grad school, books written by my friends, and books by women and people of color that I know should be replacing the old white guys still stubbornly moldering on my reading list.

Creative Options
You know, come to think of it, every moment in a college course is a creative option. It will take all our brains and willpower and soul to do this thing well. And when we give it our best good-faith effort, this whole business becomes a holy place. Whatever your failings and mine this semester, the truth is that we’re doing something wonderful together. I’ll try to honor that. I hope you will, too.  

Thanks to Ron Rienstra for creative input on this post. We confessed our professorial shortcomings and grumpinesses together. It was a bonding experience.

Debra Rienstra

I am a writer, professor, amateur musician, science fiction fan, and lifelong member of the Reformed Christian tribe. I am also the mother of three children old enough now that I can’t tell you exactly where all of them are at the moment. For my day job, I teach early British literature and creative writing at Calvin College, where I have been on the faculty for twenty years and still need to pedal fast to keep (mostly) ahead of smart, feisty undergraduates. I have published three books, over a hundred essays for The Twelve, and numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers.

21 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    As usual, delightful. I knew about the learning objectives burden required by accrediting agencies nowadays, and hate them (isn’t it the student’s job to learn?), and I’ve also been oppressed by whatever new on-line learning system is being used, but now you have to calculate and estimate how much time your assignments take? It’s a wonder people still go in for teaching. Is there any room for play?

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Of course, Jacques Ellul predicted all of this in The Technological Society.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/30/opinion/sunday/college-tuition.html

    Apropos this essay, never forget that families across America are making bad decisions in droves as their kids miss your class to not read your syllabus and procrastinate to do your assignments. But they can always borrow more for the Semester in Spain.

  • Nate Johnson says:

    Brilliant! (And after my first week with my undergrads, this hits a little too close to home.) In classic professor fashion, can you repost a slightly refreshed version of this every semester?

  • Jim Payton says:

    This was utterly delightful: it brought me to chuckles several times and to laughing tears once. As a retired history professor, I can identify with each of the sections of your syllabus and its real significance. Thank you for a delightful beginning of the day — and blessings on your new academic year!

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Workload calculations. The origin of the phrase “fuzzy math,” did you know. . . Delightful piece, Deb!

  • Lisa Hansen (Tice) says:

    Thank you for this, it was a delight to read. I have just started a doctoral degree after 16 years. My syllabi are so much longer than I remember. Going through them and deciphering them seemed daunting. You have helped me crack the code! Honestly, all I need are readings, assignments, a link to school paper requirements, and deadlines.

  • As usual, you rock. I would love to take a course with you.

  • Henry Baron says:

    I trust all your students received or will receive a copy? And none will drop the course, but all will love you!

  • Lynn Japinga says:

    Shh … please don’t talk about the workload calculator. Hope College has not yet instituted this syllabus requirement, but if administrators find out that Calvin UNIVERSITY is doing it, we will have to follow suit. How does one calculate, anyway? If students worked at the same pace I have been working on my book project, I could only assign them a three page paper the entire semester. Rachel Held Evans said that the next sentence is NOT in the refrigerator, but I keep looking anyway. 🙂 Great piece!

    • James Hart Brumm says:

      That’s funny, my school’s administration and my classis have both been telling me that I will find the next sentence if I just go to a few more meetings . . .

    • Debra K Rienstra says:

      Fortunately, Calvin does not do this. YET! Western Seminary does, however, which is how I know about the practice. If we started doing it, I would be at a complete and utter loss as to how to calculate.

    • Steve Young says:

      Our latest faculty contract used our “workload calculations” against us. “You tell your students that for one credit hour in class, they need to spend two to three hours outside of class. Therefore, you should spend 45 hours for a credit hour of advanced placement in professional development,” said our Academic VP — and thus it went into the contract. I used to get one credit for a published book review; now I need to do three to get the same professional development credit. 🙂

      Great post, Debra! I love it!

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    Word! This reinforces the notion that the faculty just may be human, and confirms the truth that we are all employed to attend meetings and fill out paperwork. As payment, we are allowed to teach occasionally–those checks are just to keep the IRS and the accrediting agencies happy.

  • Esther Bos says:

    Billiant! May I take your course? I promise that I will never never miss a test!

  • Fred Mueller says:

    What an enjoyable piece! I wanted to use the word, “delightful,” but Jim stole it. I cannot plagiarize him – you said so.

    I sure hope your Dean doesn’t see this or you are in trouble. Thanks for letting us inside your world!

    • Debra K Rienstra says:

      Hi, Fred. I’m afraid my Provost definitely reads The Twelve. My dean might as well. I’m hoping they both have more important things on their mind than scolding me for some good fun (fingers crossed)! Also hoping they might both get a good chortle out it in the privacy of their offices…

      • Anthony (Tony) Diekema says:

        Hey, Deb…..…..somewhere in here I detect a joyfully unique “rant” on academic freedom by a truly “freed academic”! Stay free, and keep talking………………….:-)
        Tony

  • […] I just read Debra Rienstra’s delightful exposition on the course syllabus. […]

  • Laura Heitritter says:

    This has me in stitches this morning. I missed class already this morning. It was unavoidable, but…no students wished to behead me. In fact, I’m guessing they are snoozing in their beds grateful for a few extra minutes. Hmmmm…I will need to make adjustments to the hours calculator.

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