Another semester, another syllabus

Let’s talk about something most of you probably finished talking about last week:  your syllabus.  But, you say, “I JUST finished my syllabus, I don’t want to look at it any more.” Ah, but now is the perfect time to revisit it.  You have just finished it, but it was probably rushed in the end as mine are (if not, I bow down to your superior syllabus preparation).

So now that you have a minute, perfect the template for next year.  Proofread it, now that you can do it at your leisure.  The syllabus is the first thing the students see.  It sets the tone and defines the scope of the class.  Make sure it is free of errors—don’t be the professor who writes that we will be learning about the ‘pubic interest.’  Choose a more professional tone or casual tone depending on the way you run your class.

The syllabus is an outline for you.  If you don’t love your approach, take a look at samples and resources that are out there. There are lots.  Make sure you cover what you are required to cover.  If your school has a model syllabus, double-check that you have the correct language regarding things like absences and accommodations.  If there is no required language, you may still want to have a syllabus that looks like everyone else’s.

Or you may not. Try a graphical syllabus.  I am not sure that works for legal research, but maybe it does.  Some professors really like tables.  Make sure you are using what works for you and what works for your class.

There is debate about the purpose of a syllabus.  Read this if you don’t think so.  Ah, for the days when a syllabus was a reading list to be explored and discussed together.  But legal research (or research and writing) has many objectives.  As a skills class, it may take special preparation for your students to understand that it involves more upfront work than many other classes.  Consider laying out the schedule in your syllabus week by week.  Or, if you think that makes it too long, have a separate schedule that is referenced in the syllabus.  You may want to discuss the philosophy of the class.

I have one friend who states at the top, “Print this syllabus out right now, and put it where you will be doing your work for this class.”  That is because, really, a good syllabus is also a path for the students.  Some students want everything – here is a checklist.  But some don’t.  When you have a 15 page, color coded syllabus, that may be too much for the students to work through.  If you have time and the ability, consider a student centered syllabus – ask students to provide desired learning outcomes, to define their responsibilities, and maybe even what assessments they want (within reason).

However you proceed, spend some time, now that the first week of class is over, looking at your syllabus before you have serious grading demands on your time.  Shine it up, and save a generic version of it.  Next semester, you will be happy you did.


About Shawn Friend

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