Six things that make a good class syllabus

Clear and accurate expectations from the start make students’ lives much easier

Fourth-year me has seen things. Terrible, wonderful things. Photo: Chris Ho/The Peak

By: Gabrielle McLaren, Editor-in-Chief

Syllabus week brings up this primal, inescapable anxiety in me. Maybe it’s my fight-or-flight response activating when faced with a list of incoming shenanigans. Maybe it’s the undeniable excitement of breaking out my coloured pens and annotating the shit out of my agenda. Or, it could also be the absolute horror show of syllabi sins I’ve witnessed throughout my humble time at SFU. It’s only been four years, but I’ve seen things, which is why I have the following criteria for a platonically idealized syllabus: 

    1. Centralize your syllabus. Don’t give me a one-pager of miscellaneous fun facts about modernism, and then send me on a treasure hunt around Canvas to find the weekly reading list or your policy for x, y, or z. When I see a fragmented syllabus I know I’m going to bother a prof with a silly question, or otherwise fuck up. Similarly, don’t make your syllabus too pretty to function. If you aesthetically write down your office hours as “T: 1:30-2:30” I’m going to spend the semester showing up for your Thursday office hours on Tuesdays. Just kill your darlings and your aesthetic — and also please don’t bury your email.
    2. Offer rationale for in-class policies. This semester I was absolutely flabbergasted and in awe to see this on a syllabus. The fact that the prof explained how to ask for content warnings, or justified their extension policy was not only respectful, but also demonstrated that they’d put some thought into how they ran their class. If you upload 17 different journal articles and op-eds on the topic of why laptops in classrooms are bad, I’m not going to fight you on your electronics-in-the-classroom policy. 
    3. Provide a clear and detailed reading list. I live in fear of professors who don’t reveal the entire semester reading schedule ahead of time. It’s a handicap to busy students who may need to work in advance. Similarly, syllabi should mention where to find readings — is article #457 available in the library or did you super legally scan your buddy’s book and upload a chapter on Canvas? Another weird one — especially when reading fiction — is when professors ask students to read “half the novel.” Like . . . do you want me to literally divide the 567 page book in two? Does that count the translator’s note at the end? What if the midpoint is in the middle of a chapter? 
    4. Include instructions for projects ahead of time. If you’re going to have me write up a big project for you and warn me not to write it the night before, you too should be prepared instead of hastily writing instructions mid-semester, Karen. Including instructions for projects, essays, and even clarification details for midterm formats etc. is incredibly helpful for students with anxiety (hi), or those of us with killer schedules and multiple responsibilities (hi again) who may need to work ahead. There’s nothing more awful than getting a list of term paper topics three weeks before the due date as Mercury goes into retrograde, a crunch period appears at work, another essay drops from the sky alongside a student conference, and I write a midterm in another class.
    5. Make preferences known in advance. When it’s essay submission time, do you want hard copies, electronic copies, or both? If you want to see my reading notes, do I need to type them for you, or is scanning handwritten notes fine? What are your thoughts on Google Drive? It’s annoying to find out at the last minute or have to re-do something you thought you’d done properly, especially when professors with Secret Preferences™ clearly had them beforehand. Preferences are fine, but communicating them and setting expectations from the start is helpful. 
    6. Tell me what to do if there’s a problem in your class. Do you only answer student inquiries via Canvas messages? Weird flex, but if so tell me in advance so I don’t send frantic emails into the void about my emergency trip home. If I have questions about a grade, should I talk to you ASAP or do you have a 24 hour waiting period? What’s the latest I can ask for an extension if my roommate gives me strep throat? If you’re assigning any group work, please, please, for the love of all things good tell me how you want me to deal with group members from hell. 

Listen, after this term’s last 16 credits, Dobby becomes a free and convocated elf — so yes, I am trying to keep my head down, get my shit done, and smoothly sail to graduation. Please, I beg of you, give me a syllabus that can help me on my quest.


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