syl•la•bus \-b s\ noun


1 : a summary outline of a discourse, treatise, or
course of study or of examination requirements

By Bill Giduz

Syllabus.” It’s a word of Greek origin common throughout higher education, a fittingly academic-sounding name for a hallowed document.

The syllabus carries academic weight because it explains for every course students take what they can expect to encounter, and what’s expected of them.

It answers all questions. It can be cited to adjudicate most class disagreements. Its word is final. Professors can often answer an unreasonable student plea with the simple retort, “It’s in the syllabus.”

In its basic form, a syllabus contains the objectives of the course, a schedule of classes and tests, material that will be covered in each class session, guidelines and deadlines for papers and tests, policy on class attendance and participation, methods of evaluating work, consequences for late work, required readings, and means of communicating with the professor.

But there are no hard-and-fast rules to follow in creating a syllabus. Some are as short as a single page front and back. Others stretch to 20 pages or more.

Content can also wander from facts into other realms. Some professors prepare students for the semester’s academic journey ahead with personal advice—life lessons for success, hopes and dreams for a superlative academic partnership, expected standards of decorum, and pet peeves. A review of Davidson course syllabi uncovered a wide variety of surprising, interesting, and amusing notes that faculty members have included in their syllabi. Here are some we thought you might enjoy!

Honor the Contract

  • It can be instructive to consider the syllabus as a contract between student and professor. The professor describes the work requirements in detail, and the grades that will be granted for various levels of successful completion. Students accept the contract, acknowledging they are aware of the assignments and understand the consequences of their efforts. No one is more explicit in this regard than Associate Professor of Spanish Angela Willis: “To facilitate a healthy student/ instructor relationship, I would like to make you all aware of classroom expectations. Please consider this syllabus as you would a contract. Please sign the syllabus on page 6, stating that you’ve read and understood all.”

Thou Shalt Not

  • Many professors express their rules for classroom behavior. Nelson Professor of Psychology and department chair Cole Barton states his with particular flair: “It pains me to have to address these kinds of things with college students, but regrettably, in a minority of students things like tardiness, the startling kut-poosh! of opening pop cans, crackle of cellophane food bags and other containers, and staccato crunch of mouth-openchewing- Frito-Lay-food-products have elicited complaints from other students about annoyances in class. Please don’t be disruptive with your attendance or classroom comportment habits.”
  • Sprunt Professor of Political Science Peter Ahrensdorf expresses his abhorrence of classroom wanderings: “And do please resist the temptation to get up during class―to fill a bottle of water, call a friend, or perform the daily ablutions―unless Nature herself absolutely demands it.”
  • The advent of portable communication devices is challenging for many professors seeking full attention of their classes. Dag Mossige, visiting assistant professor of political science, draws the line firmly: “Unfortunately, past experiences suggest that the temptation of using laptops, smart phones, etc. in class for other purposes than note taking is simply too high, and I ask that you do not bring them to class. The taking of notes by pen and paper is a very useful skill to develop, and avoids any temptation of disturbing your classmates by surfing the Web, chatting, etc. Students who insist on doing this may receive an F in this part of the grade. Turn off your cell phone!”

Suit Up, Speak Up!

  • While performance on tests and papers is always a large part of a student’s grade, professors place high value on classroom participation. Faculty express this goal in colorful ways in their syllabi. Associate Professor of Biology and department chair Barbara Lom uses a sports metaphor: “Students will ‘suit up’ for every class and be prepared to play multiple positions during a single class period in order to improve their skills as scientists, scholars, and writers.”
  • Professor of English Suzanne Churchill also gets physical about it: “Immerse yourself in the novels. Grapple with genre theory. Come to class ready to discuss and debate.” • As s o c i ate Profe s s or of Anthropology Fuji Lozada is succinct: “I am not a TV; discussions in class are an important part of exploring anthropological topics. “
  • Cole Barton tries to ensure attendance with a promise of what will be missed: “Lectures are liberally sprinkled with material not found in the text, so miss class and depend on others’ notes at your peril. Class meetings will have pearls, bon mots, and Patterson Court party trivia not to be found in our more pedestrian reading.”

Go Green!

  • Professor of Biology Mark Stanback states the importance of environmental stewardship in his syllabi, and invites students to do the same by offering extra credit: “Although we can’t go entirely paperless in this course, you should try to minimize unnecessary printing. As an incentive, I will give 5 points of extra credit to all students who resist the temptation to print out or photocopy the spots [which he provides electronically]. Every day is Earth Day!”

To Avoid a Fall, Keep Up!

  • Many syllabi stress the importance of keeping up with assignments between class sessions. Associate Professor of Philosophy and acting chair Sean McKeever says, “Students are expected to attend all class meetings and to do appropriate reading prior to class. I should add that ‘doing the reading’ means more than glancing/skimming/perusing/ looking over/or otherwise making mere eye contact with the printed page. Doing the reading requires carefully and critically reading selections in their entirety; it requires making an attempt to understand what an author is claiming, why he or she is claiming it, and beginning to think about whether those claims are justified.…It is perfectly fine to arrive at class confused, bewildered, or unsure about what the reading means. This is to be expected. What is not fine is coming to class without having engaged with the material by making a sincere attempt to think about it.”
  • Doe Professor of Economics Peter Hess offers this list of keys to success: Arrive for class one minute early, ready to begin the lecture at the bell. Prepare for class. Do the assigned reading before the class. Ask questions in class. Review your notes soon after each class. Use extra help―early and often―to bolster understanding. Start the problem sets early. Try to do as much as possible before referring to your notes or the text. Mind the Clock! It appears the most heinous crime in Davidson’s academic world (aside from breaking the Honor Code) is turning work in late. Syllabus writers express their disapproval unabashedly, and state clearly that almost no excuses will be tolerated.
  • Associate Professor of History Michael Guasco titles his feelings on the matter “Nasty Bits,” and warns: “I have no sympathy for last-minute, computer-related excuses. Write your paper with enough time to spare to deal with any foreseeable difficulties.”
  • Brown Professor of Political Science and department chair Shelley Rigger expresses a similar view: “Please do not ask for extensions because you have ‘too much work’; everyone does, and it’s unfair to give extensions to those who ask, while those who don’t ask end up with less time to do a good job…. Look at your personal schedules in advance, and plan your work accordingly.”

Let the Buyer Beware!

  • Some professors seem to view syllabi as a means of weeding out less-than-enthusiastic scholars. Professor of Music Neil Lerner may well have sent some prospectives scurrying back to Web Tree after they read this: “You will be expected to master a large body of biographical and historical facts, to synthesize new ideas, and to concentrate on your listening skills. The course will introduce you to a number of unknown musical works and techniques— some in foreign languages, to boot. If you number yourself among the academically undermotivated or musically apathetic, you might consider doing your social life (and the college g.p.a.) a favor and take instead a less demanding course.” However, Lerner goes on encouragingly, “If on the other hand you welcome the challenge of listening to complex works of music and contemplating what those works said about earlier and distant cultures and individuals you may find it intellectually rewarding, aesthetically enjoyable, and you may start to become a more sensitive listener, performer, or writer.”
  • Professor of Religion Greg Snyder warns: “As with most classes at Davidson, you can expect that grading will be rigorous; this stems from my high estimation and expectation of you as students, and from a desire to recognize and honor truly excellent work. You won’t get a B for just showing up.”

Intellectual Rewards

  • Many professors offer encouraging words to students not only about the grades they will earn through diligent study, but the intellectual rewards of that pursuit. Associate Professor of Classics Keyne Cheshire waxes eloquent in inviting students to join him on a journey to experience the joys of the Greek language: “As your guide I promise to do my best to explicate the mysteries of Greek along the way, but the greatest burden rests firmly on the shoulders of the acolyte. Keep in mind that learning, when done properly, is both an intellectual and a spiritual venture. As an initiate into the delights of Greek, you will quickly find that constancy, diligence, and endurance―combined with a joyful disposition and a presence of mind― will best lead one to the successful attainment of the pleasures the Greek language offers.”


  • Even outside of writing courses, many professors offer tips for good writing in their syllabi. Cannon Professor of Religion Karl Plank includes an 11-point checklist that states in part: “Proofread your paper. Do it again. Read your paper aloud. Listen to how it sounds and to hear if it makes sense. If it does not make sense to you, then others will have little chance to understand it. Revise your paper. Make sure you have used active voice, strong verbs, and no empty modifiers. Do not make verbs of nouns or nouns of verbs.”

The Real Takeaway

  • Syllabi routinely list the people, places, and events that students will study in a course. But some professors note that the real lessons to be learned are in a higher realm. Associate Professor of History Michael Gusasco writes: “If history were just a jumble of names, dates, and facts, there would be little reason for more than one biography of Thomas Jefferson or one book about the Civil War. But history is not just the past. History is the ongoing human effort to make the past meaningful….History is created anew every day, in the present…. My measure of success in this course, then, is not whether you know more about the past when all is said and done, but whether you can think more carefully, read more critically, and write more creatively.”

Attracting a Crowd

  • It’s not the same thing as selling Cheerios, but professors actively try to attract students to take the classes they offer. The syllabus can help. Several include illustrations and pithy quotes on the cover page.
  • Professor of Philosophy Irwin Goldstein employs the intriguing words of Marcus Aurelius: “The time of human life is but a point, and the substance is a flux, and his perceptions dull, and the composition of the body corruptible, and the soul a whirl, and fortune inscrutable, and fame a senseless thing. In a word, everything which belongs to the body is a flowing stream, and what belongs to the soul a dream and a vapor, and life is a warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and future fame is oblivion. What then is there which can guide one? One thing and only one: philosophy.”
  • Sprunt Professor of Political Science Peter Ahrensdorf seeks to attract young intellectuals with thought-provoking questions that his course will answer: “What is the best political society? Is democracy superior to aristocracy or monarchy or theocracy? Should political society be communistic or non-communistic? Should political societies be small or large, religious or secular, tolerant or intolerant? Is religion necessary for a decent and stable political society? Or does religion tend to undermine political life?”

I’m Here to Help

  • Almost all syllabi offer a pledge of the instructor’s help in many forms—electronic correspondence, office hours, reading drafts, and so on. Davidson professors clearly are invested in students’ success, and their syllabi are roadmaps for students to follow so that the course will be a successful experience for teacher and student.
  • Vail Professor of History Ralph Levering offers that heartfelt sentiment this way: “My overwhelming concern as a teacher is to help you to achieve your goals, in the process treating you with as much equality and fairness as I can and with as much respect and admiration as I think you have earned. My greatest satisfaction as a teacher comes when students progress as writers, thinkers, speakers, and students of history even more than they thought possible at the beginning of the course.”

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