An illustration of two hands reaching out through a window filled with letters The traditional syllabus is a dreadfully dry document. It usually contains a reading list, a class schedule, some daunting language around grading, attendance, plagiarism. The tone is formal, bleached of personality. Even forbidding.

That’s largely because academics have been coached to view the syllabus as an almost legalistic document. As one journal article says: “Universities in the U.S. and abroad require them, some legislatures govern them, faculty love to hate them, and students (only sometimes) read them.”

In some quarters of academia, though, the syllabus has come up for a makeover—in message, tone, appearance, purpose. “We want to shift away from looking at a syllabus as a contract, to looking at it as a tool to establish and sustain a relationship with students,” says Riley Caldwell-O’Keefe, director of Amherst’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

To that end, the CTL conducted a syllabus design workshop in January. Five Amherst faculty members, most fairly new to campus, took part, along with three from the Five Colleges. The workshop was meant to help them figure out not which books to assign, but rather how and why to set the tone they want.

On day one, the group explored theories behind the syllabus and analyzed syllabi from instructors at various schools. On day two, they shared their own syllabi-in-progress, considered their goals and held group critiques. On day three, they polished their documents.

We want to shift away from looking at a syllabus as a contract, to looking at it as a tool.”

Some syllabus components seemed straightforward: listing office hours, for instance—though Laura Wenk of Hampshire College defined the term “office hours” in her syllabus: “I had a student who told me, ‘I thought office hours were when we shouldn’t bother you.’”

Old-school syllabi usually leave out the “learning goal,” or conflate it with course content (i.e., you’ll learn about apartheid). Visiting Assistant Professor of Statistics Ryan McShane distinguished the two: “Learning how to do a t-test is a topic. But ‘You’ll be able to read a newspaper article and understand the statistic’ is the learning goal.”

Assistant Professor of Classics Andreas “Tom” Zanker had embedded a “secret question” in a prior syllabus which, if a student emails him the answer, counts for 1 percent of their grade. It’s a way to see if a student has read the document, and it sets a fun tone. The others convinced him to replace a syllabus image of Zeus throwing a thunderbolt with a more welcoming picture.

Many faculty struggled with such nuances of tone, and Caldwell-O’Keefe rolled out syllabi with “cold” and “warm” word choices. Younger faculty, especially younger faculty of color, wanted to be seen as inviting, but not so much that they’d lose students’ respect.

Studies show that students, especially first-generation students, are more likely to skip enrolling in a class when the syllabus sounds adversarial. In one sample, the professor required that an absence due to a death in the family had to be confirmed with a death certificate. “I felt like that was written by someone who is burned out, or does not like students,” said Amy Nussbaum, visiting lecturer at Mount Holyoke.

Added Caldwell-O’Keefe, “Designing a syllabus requires you to think really carefully about who you are as a teacher, and what you value. This points to how critical a document a syllabus can be—because it conveys all these pieces.”

Illustration by Adam McCauley

How They Changed Their Syllabi

Allison formanack, CHI fellow and visiting lecturer in anthropology

Course: “American Housing: Foundations and Futures”

How the workshop influenced this syllabus: Formanack highlighted what students will learn how to do, including: “Define ‘home’ as a theoretical concept across a variety of cultural contexts and historical periods” and “Propose a solution to the ‘housing crisis,’ broadly defined.”

Sony Coráñez Bolton, assistant professor of Spanish

Course: “Comparative Borderlands: Race, Gender and Sexuality in Transnational Perspective”

How the workshop influenced this syllabus: Bolton considered borrowing from another professor, who listed ground rules for class discussions. Others borrowed Bolton’s clear language around accessibility policy. Said Bolton of the syllabus overall: “I want my students to know I’m a nice person and this will be a fun class.”