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The Softer Side of My Syllabus

posted: 8.26.13 by archived

With two weeks until school starts (as I write this), it’s time for me to get working on my syllabus. I’m teaching a theme-based course that’s already gone through two iterations, so I know that specific hard-skills content about approach and assignments and calendar will fall into place fairly quickly, once I get going. What I’ve been thinking more about this time are the almost auto-fill pieces about general course policy. It’s in these soft skills areas of getting to class, minimizing text-messaging distractions, turning work in on time that so much of student success is lodged. In short, (pardon the double negative), it’s not that students can’t write; it’s that they don’t.

In reconsidering my standard course policies, I’m thinking through these issues:

  • What’s the connection between what my syllabus says I’m going to do and what I actually end up doing?
  • How does my own personality style influence my choice of policies and how well I enforce those policies?
  • Do my policies embody a sink-or-swim philosophy or something more supportive?


The default department policy is that students who miss more than the equivalent of two weeks of classes can be withdrawn from the course. The issue, though, is buried in the modal auxiliary. Some of my colleagues with a “will” in their syllabi, or a more ominous “shall,” are strict about enforcement, but my syllabus says “may” and in the past I’ve normally given students at least double that many absences before I actually withdraw them. I am one of those free-spirit baby-boomers temperamentally disinclined to limits and conflict (I never set limits on my kids’ television time either or insisted that they eat vegetables before they left the table), but I’m wondering if that flexibility may not serve my students.

What I would cite in my defense: those numerous community-college-student life issues (sick kids, court appearances, job conflicts, car problems) make a hard-line stance seem heartless; some students who miss more than four classes are competent writers and I don’t feel right about withdrawing them if they both can do the work of the course and turn in sufficient work to pass; the weaker students will of their own choice miss information and activities that might have helped them improve their writing, but they don’t need additional penalties on top of that. I wonder, though, if a stronger reason has to do with my own secret sense of guilt, my nagging feeling that student absences are result of my failure to sufficiently engage their interest.

The opposing voice in my head points out that the working world will require attendance and I should be training them in that; online classes are available for those who prefer to work more independently (though I suspect that few students with poor attendance in class would do well in online or hybrid modes); my classes these days are not lectures where missing students will forego my pearls of wisdom but rather spaces and times for more interactive learning, and in missing class students diminish that space and demoralize class members who do show up.

For this semester, I’m still weighing my options. I’m not quite ready to go hard-line in enforcing the two-week limit, but I intend to make much more explicit the connection between attendance and success in class. My handy-dandy grading app, which I also use for attendance, makes it easy to send students a warning email, and I plan to do that much more frequently. Also, circulating around the computer lab with my iPad in hand, it’s easier to assign low-stakes credit for work started/completed during class time.

Late paper policy.

My colleagues range from no late work accepted to various staged penalties such as a grade lowered per day late. (I’m not sure how vigorously these are enforced.) My policy reads: “I will grant one extension if you cannot turn the final draft of an essay in on time. In order to receive an extension, you must notify me via email before the essay is due. You do not need to provide an explanation, but you must tell me when you will turn in the essay. Your proposed date must be within a week of the original due date. After that extension has been used, late essays will be penalized one grade (for example, from A- to B+) for each day late. “ However, my enforcement has been sporadic, due largely to my own struggles with procrastination or difficulty in getting started with writing projects myself.

Even when I do enforce these penalties, though, they don’t seem to increase timeliness of submissions, especially for rough drafts when students figure out quickly that no grade attached means no penalty possible. When students adopt the go-for-broke strategy by failing to turn in rough drafts, it wreaks havoc with peer review and makes moot my arguments about the essential place of revision in the writing process.

Following the lead of one of my colleagues who assigns 30% of a student’s grade to what he calls “citizenship” (timely submission of all drafts), I tried an experiment this summer. I was teaching a six-week, fully online course and very concerned about the difficulty students might have with meeting deadlines, so I tied 10% of course grade to on-time submission of rough drafts with a simple one point = turned in on time, zero points otherwise. My results were very encouraging, with 80% or so of drafts turn in on time, so this semester I plan to continue it in all five classes to test it out more thoroughly.

Please feel free to share in the comments below what policies you’ve adopted for these soft-skills and maybe something about how and why you’ve come to those decisions.

Categories: Holly Pappas
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