Who owns the syllabus?

Image by Darby Browning from Pixabay

A syllabus is a document that sets out a plan for how a teacher will turn the curriculum into a course. It’s one thing that tends to set university-based English language programs apart from private language schools. The latter tend to have short sessions or rolling intake systems that can mean students arriving in and leaving the class on a regular basis, as often as once a week. Schools with this type of system tend to follow a school-wide plan for what will be taught and assessed, in many cases based on the units of a textbook, and there is no place there for a teacher-made syllabus. 

Many university-based programs have inherited the syllabus tradition, which is part of a broader tradition of faculty ownership of teaching. That is, the teacher is assigned a semester-length course and is responsible for significant elements of its design and delivery. The typical syllabus is headed by the teacher’s name and contact information, and details such as location and schedule of the class and the teacher’s office hours. Information about the course tends to come later. The foregrounding of the teacher on the syllabus symbolizes the centrality of and ownership by the teacher. 

This is changing. Institutions have become more prescriptive about the layout and content of syllabi, and many provide a template for faculty to fill in. Heading the new style of syllabus is the institution’s name and logo, representing a brand consciousness that asserts the institution over the individual teacher. Additionally, the requirement to adhere to accreditation standards and institutional attempts to standardize course information and policies – such as academic honesty, attendance, and grading – mean that more syllabus information than ever is supplied by the institution and the document is less and less owned by the individual teacher. 

This makes the syllabus in some ways a contested area of school life, one in which the freedom of the teacher may be pitted against the requirements of the institution. Although it may not lead to openly expressed disagreement, there may be some concerns among faculty over this corporatization of the syllabus. On the other hand, having a template that looks professional and requires less ‘from scratch’ work is appealing to many faculty. 

I think it’s important to retain faculty-specific elements of the syllabus in university-governed programs. Yes, course goals and outcomes, and even some assessments, should be standard across course sections to ensure fairness to students. But one goal can be reached by many routes, and teachers – master’s qualified, experienced – should retain a degree of professional decision-making and judgment about which route speaks best to their own strengths and to the needs of the students in front of them. As in most things, it’s a question of balance.

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