Summer Days Drift toward Syllabus Time

Posted By Pamela on Jul 20, 2008 | 13 comments

Last Friday I looked at my calendar and had the terrifying realization that I had 3 days of freedom before I started a long series of trips that would culminate in the first day of classes.

Then I realized it was July 18, not July 25, and that I actually had 1 week and 3 days.

Let me just say eek.

My summer has been fairly productive if I ignore how little I’ve blogged. Plans for the International Year of Astronomy are coming along nicely, I got with the help of some friends colleagues frolleagues a grant written, and I have lost track of how many research projects have had steady progress made on them. Life is good (ignoring the blog). I still have a lot I want to do this summer though: 1 more grant, some website theme dress ups, and some general hard drive cleaning. There are also some things I need to do, like, oh, writing next falls syllabus.

Next fall I’m teaching the second semester of calculus based physics for the first time. I’ve taught the algebra based version several times, and everyone tells me this will be easy for me, but this algebra to calculus change means I can’t use the same syllabus. These are also going to be students that had someone else for the first semester, so they are going to come into my class with a set of ideas about “this is how physics is taught” that I’m going to be judged against. As I write my syllabus, I get to give them the first document by which they can judge me, and I get to set the tone for the class.

In today’s wireless, cell-phone enabled, YouTube, Facebook, Flickr world, teaching takes on a whole new set of rules. Any of you remember when the biggest question was “would chewing gum be allowed in class”? Today’s instructor, which would be me, has to worry about technical interruptions, invasions of privacy, and all sorts of new ways for cheating.

As I write my syllabus, I’d really like to make it just 4 lines long:

  1. Please don’t do anything that will distract me or your classmates from learning
  2. Please don’t cheat in anyway. When in doubt, assume what you’re doing is cheating
  3. Please don’t record anyone’s audio or image in anyway without permission
  4. Attendance is strongly encouraged, but not mandatory, and if you miss class but not an exam due to illness or a family emergency, I do not need to be notified.

In reality, my syllabus has an entire page of carefully detailed rules and regulations that every semester get a little bit longer as people find new and more interesting ways to break the system or break me. For instance, students been conditioned some where along the line that if they get sick they need to provide the details to the instructor. I can tell them until I’m blue in the face that I don’t take attendance, but I don’t need details, but they don’t believe me. I do know the profs who require details and documentation. I am not one of those instructors. I do not want to know. I really don’t want you to send me pictures detailing you injury. Please, if you are sick, just tell me, get the lecture notes from someone else, and let’s just move on. Eeewww. Really, I don’t need to know. Thus I have the, “If you are sick and it does not impact your ability to attend a test, I do not need to know. Please remember, your lowest homework is dropped and most students will get sick at least once during the semester. If you are ill for more than a week and need special accommodations, please talk to me, but understand I do not need medical details. I respect your privacy and trust you to be honest.” I’m sure there will still be at lesat one case of two much sharing, but… Is it alright that I am appalled at both the level of documentation some profs require and the fact that students don’t see this as an unnecessary invasion of privacy?

Facebook also presents a whole level of student-professor confusions. I welcome my students “friending” me on Facebook (it makes it easier for me to remember them when I have to write recommendation letters). I do not welcome students to challenge me on quizes about “whose hot” and “Which pinup model are you?” That’s just creepy. This means I have to detail Facebook rules in my syllabus as well.

With Facebook and all the other content sharing sites, I also have to detail that students may not record and then share anything that happens in class without permission. I can’t think of a time when I wouldn’t give permission, but still.

And I know I’m going to forget something. For instance, what should my late homework policy be when the homework is internet-based and the site goes down for the three hours prior to the homeworks due “date” (which is really a due time)? I encountered that for the first time last semester. There is no fair response? And how do I write a rule that states, “If you ask so many pointless and stupid questions that I and all the students want to duct tape your mouth shut, you will not be allowed to come to class.” That is not a political correct thing to put in the syllabus, but I’ve had more than one student who both made me feel unsafe because I was not convinced they were stable, and who made learning/teaching difficult because of their constant badgering.

I’m getting ready to teach a new semester. It’s time to write a new syllabus. I’m confronted with an empty sheet of digital paper.

Chewing gum is allowed in my class.

That’s at least one rule I don’t have to write.


  1. My last year as a professor, I actually had one student tell me that “nowhere in the syllabus did it say that we weren’t allowed to fake our data in the lab.”

    (Of course, at first he didn’t admit to faking it… but he really didn’t give up.)

    You’re detailing mostly the things that you have to tell the honest students, because of legitimate cultural confusion. Alas, there is also some small subset of students that like to play little lawyer, for whom you have to detail all sorts of little rules that should be (and, really, are) obvious.

  2. Wow, you’re really nice for a professor with the rule “no need to present private medical records for attendance issues”.

    Now that I think about it, a lot of professors write a bunch of stringent rules about attendance, yet they don’t fuss that much about their own rules when things actually happen.

    (this is from a student’s perspective)

  3. You say you’ve felt unsafe and/or badgered by some student’s questions. I immediately think that it is because those student’s had a creationist worldview.

    I’ve talked with biology profs here in Fresno who have told me about the incredibly difficult time they have with creationists challenging the lesson. One professor told me that she was thinking of hanging it all up and quitting the profession.

    Have you had problems like this?

  4. Hi Calladus,

    I’ve been attacked by another professor in class for not being a creationist, but never by a student.

    The students who have made been feel unsafe fell into two categories: Strung our on what I would guess was meth or cocaine, and off their meds mentally ill. I’ve now had two students with mental illness who were significantly larger then me and male, and I’d had warnings that one of them had physically threatened another prof. Situations like that scare the shit out of me and cause me to not have evening office hours when other faculty may not be around.

    The students who have badgered me with questions to the point of making it hard to teach have also fallen into two camps: Students resentful that I teach a challenging course who try and get me to give up and make things easy by constantly saying some version of “I don’t get it and don’t even know why I need to learn this” over and over and over, and students with mental illness who don’t understand their questions may annoy others (autism is very hard to cope with in the college classroom).

    Creationists I know how to handle – they train us for that and I’ve read the Bible enough times to be able to defend myself in office hours. Most creationists are willing to have the conversation after class if you are non-confrontational.

    What I’m not trained to handle are drugs, aggressive apathy, and mental disorders. I’m learning on the fly, and it’s not at all fun.


  5. Hang in there, lady! I did one bout of summer teaching at a community college and that was enough for me. I have the utmost respect for you and your teaching prowess. 🙂

  6. Another **professor** attacked you in **class** for not being a creationist?


    I did get told by a professor in some other discipline that the only reason astronomers accepted the Big Bang is because of our Judeo-Christian cultural predisposition to think that there was a moment of beginning….

    While I was nonplussed at the time, it’s great in retrospect, because now I can say that the fundamentalists think I’m a heathen for accepting the Big Bang, and the po-mo types think I’m too much of a Christian for accepting the Big Bang.

  7. >I do not welcome students to challenge me on quizes about
    >“whose hot” and “Which pinup model are you?” That’s just

    This is largely why I’ve basically abandoned Facebook. Those quizzes were meant as a way of encouraging participation, but they’re far too invasive. I just go through and “ignore” all of them no matter who sent them.

    >I also have to detail that students may not record and
    >then share anything that happens in class without
    >permission. I can’t think of a time when I wouldn’t
    >give permission, but still.

    This one surprised me. Why so? As a teacher I would think you’d encourage discussion along the lines of what happens in class. Indeed, its always been my experience that lots of sharing gets a lot done. Someone sharing “a” with someone else may get BOTH people’s neuron’s firing. What am I missing here?

  8. Remember that not everyone wants themselves on the internet. In laying down the law about not posting without permission, I’m protecting both myself and the students. For instance, I hand back tests and someone starts crying – Thats not a YouTube moment. Or for instance, I’m teaching with my fly down or an unknown button not buttoned in a bad location. Also not a YouTube moment. We should all always have the choice to say “No.”

    If all I thought they were going to post is the content of class, I’d have not problem, but I have to protect the people interacting with the content.

  9. You can always use the “block” button in Facebook to block apps from inviting you. Of course, over time, new ones pop up again and so on.

    Also, it’s been rumored that some apps managed to find surreptitious ways to send invites without explicit permission from the author (unconfirmed). Facebook used to be pretty nice on Facebook just a few months ago, but now the apps are tearing things down.

  10. As a former physics student its nice to read the other side of what happens!

    Hope it all goes well.

  11. As to the recording thing, at one school I taught at, it was made clear that faculty lectures and presentations are our intellectual property and we had control over whether or not we would allow others to record us. No different than not being allowed to record at a movie theater or Broadway show.

  12. “If you ask so many pointless and stupid questions that I and all the students want to duct tape your mouth shut”

    This should be a rule. This always annoyed me when I was a student. Some people just don’t realize that a lecture is largely a one way conversation. If you’re going to argue points with the instructor or just can’t keep up, save that conversation for posted office hours. The rest of the students are more interested in learning the information they will be graded on.

  13. As a professor, I take attendance but mostly so that I can know who has missed what and needs the handouts. I have also seen in many years of teaching that students who attend class get better grades on tests and assignments. That’s even if they are half-asleep. But I don’t need to discuss absences unless students miss tests or can’t get an assignment in on time.

    I only give extra time on technology-hindered assignments if the down time was significant. They should be working on assignments before they are due. I don’t accept ‘I accidentally deleted my file when copying it to the server’. I try to be nice but firm.

    They can bring breakfast to class as long as it doesn’t smell so good that everyone else gets hungry. And they have to eat quietly and pick up the trash.

    My department has a policy against recording even the audio of a lecture unless you have a learning accommodation letter (need it to help overcome a learning disability). Then it is only for that student’s use. Otherwise, recording infringes on student privacy and faculty intellectual property.

    This fall, most of my students were in my class last spring. They thought they were getting someone else, but get me again. Some won’t be happy even though I told them of the possibility.

    Finally, I have asked a disruptive student to leave class. My university has a handout concerning Disruptive Student Behavior. But there are many borderline situations.

    We added signs outside our classrooms telling people to turn off cellphones. I’m sure that not all of the students using laptops (we have wireless internet) are paying attention to what I’m discussing. But I’ll chastise them if they are interfering with class.

    My hope is that they come to class ready to learn. Hope springs eternal. Classes start August 25, and I don’t want to think about it yet even though I have off and on all summer. At least mine is something I’ve done a few times. I still don’t have it right, but it gets better every time I teach it.

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