Is a Syllabus the Same As a Contract?

I’ve been asked to comment on the following story: a group of students at McGill University petitioned their professor to give them an extension on a paper and he wrote a funny response that went viral. Read the linked article for more details of the story.

I have to say that my style of communicating with students is very different from what this prof does. However, teaching styles vary a lot and if this way of relating to students works for this prof, then that’s great. There is no single formula of pedagogic success because, as I said before, a teacher’s most important tool is his or her personality. Here is my approach to giving extensions and dealing with absences, in case you are wondering.

What bothers me about the linked article is this:

Ken Hastings, president of the McGill Association of University Teachers, said that, kidding aside, the brouhaha raises some pretty serious underlying issues about fairness.

Everybody in the class, he said, is linked by a contract of fairness and it is intrinsically unfair to change any of the agreed-upon rules, including deadlines. The professors are bound by the contract just as much as the students.

It bothers me to see the language of the business world applied to teaching. We never see business people use the word “syllabus” to refer to a contract, do we? Then why should teachers adopt the vocabulary of business ย for their work? A syllabus exists for the sole purpose of making it easier for the teacher and the students to orient themselves in the course. It is not a contract. Nobody signs it, notarizes it, or goes to court over it. At least, not until people like Mr. Hastings force us all to ditch long-standing academic practices in favor of the unfortunate corporate model of education.

I change my syllabi on a regular basis. Even if I teach the same course for years, each group that takes it is different. It develops a dynamic of its own, requires different approaches, and masters some skills better than others. This semester, for instance, I cancelled one of the compositions that had been planned for the course in one of the sections of Intermediate Spanish but not in the other section I’m teaching. I discovered that the students in section 1 had very good writing skills but found it extremely difficult to speak. So I cancelled the composition and scheduled an oral exam instead. I discussed this change with the students, and they all agreed that the change made sense. My teaching would be seriously handicapped if I were forced to treat a syllabus as if it were a contract.

I believe that people use this rhetoric of contracts to conceal their incapacity to have a dialogue with students and impose their authority in the classroom. Instead of making themselves and their decisions respected and discussing things with students, they use this childish avoidance strategy that helps them to save face.

“I’d totally be willing to accommodate you,” they tell students, “if it weren’t for this iron-clad contract that I can’t break. The decision is out of my hands. Don’t blame me, blame the contract.”

This is an easy way of avoiding confrontation with students but it is ultimately very dangerous. If we slip into the verbiage of business contracts and lead the students to believe that they are our customers, we are opening the way for administrators to use this rhetoric against us.

A contract, a syllabus, a customer, a student, a business, and a college are completely different concepts. There is no need to limit our vocabulary by using them interchangeably. Let’s stop avoiding protagonism in our own teaching. Instead, let’s begin to say, “I do (or don’t) grant extensions because this is how I choose to run my classroom.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with a teacher having authority and control over his or her classroom. We don’t need to pretend we are part of the corporate world to give ourselves authority.

We have authority just by virtue of being teachers.

P.S. Thank you, The Sister, for sending me this story.

10 thoughts on “Is a Syllabus the Same As a Contract?

  1. I change my syllabi on a regular basis. Even if I teach the same course for years, each group that takes it is different. It develops a dynamic of its own, requires different approaches, and masters some skills better than others.

    This, absolutely!!!


  2. “We have authority just by virtue of being teachers” – I grew up believing this, and also that a teach simultaneously had the moral responsibility of taking their students capabilities and interests into account. But I must say, in my brief stint in academia in north America, the message very much was deflect personal interaction as much as possible, for you never know when taking an actual personal interest might be (a) misinterpreted or (b) taken by other students as a mark of unfair favour or misconduct, and then you’d be a right kettle of hot water. Of course, this precariousness didn’t apply to tenured faculty members.

    Very nicely redone blog, Clarissa. Is this a Christmas makerover?


  3. Interesting.

    It is not a contract, but when a syllabus states “no make-up exams” and “no late essays will be accepted” I think that it is clear enough. I hate having to repeat this, and the many good reasons behind my policies, to my students.


  4. As an undergraduate, it was taught to me that to change exam dates was unfair because people make plans around these from the beginning of the term. This is particularly important on quarters when you can’t miss a beat and have to figure out on day 1 when you are going to find time to write your papers, etc. In this situation the change of a deadline or exam date is unfair because it throws the structure of everyone’s life and study plan off … even if it makes sense *within* the context of the course.

    I still do it, and/or change the nature of the assignment, but I try not to. Here, changing the format of anything, as in changing from a composition to an oral exam, would be considered by the weaker students to be unsettling in the extreme. They do not perceive it as being done for their benefit, but as something being done to confuse them.


      1. It is: other students, in other sections, then protest their exam not having been pushed back. If I were to change a composition to an oral exam, the administration would be capable of saying that previously I had been teaching writing and now I was teaching speaking and it was unfair to switch the students from writing to speaking when the other had been announced. Everything is about not disconcerting them, not disturbing them. It is because it is considered unfair by some to ask students to produce a complete sentence in the first year that they enter the second year not knowing how to say “Me llamo Clarissa.”


        1. I’m doing all I can to resist attempts to impose the tendency towards uniformisation on my teaching. I take the syllabus and the textbook I’m given, then ditch them, and do my own thing. I’m told to teach certain courses, but I change their names and again do my own thing. I’m not convinced there is any reason to try to teach in the exact same way across sections.

          This position is very hard to protect because my colleagues, for some mysterious reason, love uniformity. When people try to push this on me, I say that I was promised academic freedom at the time of hiring and ask whether my contract is being rewritten. This works for now.


          1. Our situation is, no longer. Some people are under threat of dismissal. I am not as against consistency as you — my priority, for instance, is to have people speaking and writing whole sentences. Others’ priorities are to teach them to do written exercises, filling in blanks. The disparities are so great as to be very confusing for students; I do not prepare mine to do the kinds of things others want, and they do not prepare theirs to do the kinds of things I want.


            1. It’s horrible that people are living in the shadow of possible dismissal.

              I agree completely about complete sentences and the need to make them produce something valuable on their own.


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