The Syllabus as "Personal Correspondence"
“If the syllabus is to be read by someone, it must be written to and for someone: it must be something that is for someone . . . It is a personal correspondence. It addresses us as if by name.” - Sam Rocha, The Syllabus as Curriculum
What if we thought about our syllabus as a form of communication instead of as a contract? While the contract version of a syllabus might be filled with policies and rules and punitive measures, the correspondence version speaks directly to students as persons, leaving room for a response. Of course, we have to include our institutional policies, and many policies, such as accessibility statements, actively promote the dignity of our students, but the way we word our own sections forms our students’ first impressions of us. As you’re preparing your course, here are some ways to write your syllabus “to and for someone”:
- Examine Situational Factors in a Caring Way: Who are your students? Is your syllabus really written for those persons? Before each writing session, try articulating the goodness of your students in concrete ways. Imagining future collaborators can help you avoid antagonistic language that can undermine community-building even before your first class.
- Open the Syllabus: “Correspondence” implies room for mutual dialogue. When possible, leave room for students to collectively add their own policies and statements. Opening up the syllabus to student collaboration can improve engagement and give students a voice in their own educational experience. To learn more about crafting an open syllabus visit the Open Pedagogy Notebook.
- Personalize the Course: Use technology to address your students by name regardless of class size. With mail merge, you can send a personalized welcome letter along with your syllabus. Post your syllabus in Canvas and create an Announcement to let students know it is available. (If you do this, note that you must first publish your course.) Make it even more personal by including a short video in the announcement, in which you introduce yourself and the course.
- Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.
- Nelson, A. (2019). “Collaborative Syllabus Design: Students at the Center.” Open Pedagogy Notebook: Sharing Practices, Building Community. from http://openpedagogy.org/course-level/collaborative-syllabus-design-students-at-the-center/.
- Rocha, S. (2021). The Syllabus as Curriculum: A Reconceptualist Approach. New York, Routledge.
To follow up on any of these ideas, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. This Weekly Teaching Note was adapted from a contribution to the Teaching and Learning Writing Consortium hosted at Western Kentucky University.
Chris Adamson, PhD
Education Technology Integrationist
Center for Teaching and Learning
University of South Dakota