Syllabus Omnibus

I really wish there was one. I mean a big book with every syllabus ever written, not a mode of transportation for said syllabi. I think writing a good syllabus for your class is one of the most demanding parts of teaching. It sets the tone for the rest of the semester and it is pretty much a contract between you and your students, laying out what they are supposed to do and what you yourself are committing to. It’s been a bit more than a week since we started the semester at Bates and I have been mildly obsessive about the whole process. In this post, I will share some of the things I decided to do and the ideas behind them.

The first thing I think about is how much detail I want to include. I like to give myself some flexibility. The main reason for this is that I don’t yet know my students, their needs, and their background, and I might want to adjust some of the things I’m doing based on that. To that end, I usually have a couple of assignments, usually “projects” worth a certain amount but that I say I will explain later in the semester. Most of the time I know what I want to do for that project, but I want to be able to change my mind depending on the students’ abilities and interests. So on this point, I would say I like to be detailed about a lot of things but cautious on the sorts of promises I make. For example, as you may have seen in a previous post, I like to give extra credit, but I never announce it on the syllabus. Some people have schedules for the class (like which section of the book we’ll cover each day) and homework assignments for the whole semester. But I think that until I’ve taught a course a few times I need to give myself some leeway.

Sometimes setting the tone can be done by giving an inspiring speech on the first day. Since my inspiring speeches tend to be on the rambling side, I like to write things down on the syllabus instead. I like to have two sections called “course promises” and “course expectations”. This idea I got from a book called “On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching”, by James M. Lang*.  In short, it basically says “I promise you will learn, provided you do everything you are supposed to do”. In the cases where I have taught using IBL, I have also included a few paragraphs about what that is about. Some people like their syllabi shorter, less wordy, but I like having this little narrative that is written down somewhere.

There are other technical things we all have to include, like how the course is being graded (broadly speaking, like exams, projects, homework), when are big evaluations happening, what book you will be using (if using one at all), the course website, your office hours, your office number (one of my favorite things to do when, halfway through the semester, someone asks where my office is, is just to tell them: “it’s on the syllabus”). Surprisingly, deciding how to weigh the different assignments is what I often struggle with the most. How much should the homework be worth? The exams? It depends a lot on the class, but my impression is that there is always someone in the class who is not happy with your decisions. This is where some people (not me) get clever. I borrowed Ron Taylor’s syllabus to prepare my own for my Real Analysis class (again, we should probably put all of these in a top-secret math professors only website). His first assignment for the class was for them to decide how much each graded item was worth (this included exams, labs, homework, and presentations). He restricted the possible values (so no one could, say, make the grade 100% based on homework), but from there it was up to them. If they failed to turn in the assignment, he would assign a random number in the range, with the possibility that the values added up to under 100! I thought this was really smart, because it really makes them think about how the class is graded beforehand and helps them cater it to their own needs (e.g. maybe this helps people with test-taking anxiety, and helps the “smart but lazy” students who would rather just take exams and avoid turning in a lot of homework). I considered doing it, but given that this was my first time teaching the class at Bates I wanted to keep things well-defined from the beginning. I have also heard from some colleagues who have tried this that it can potentially generate a lot of anxiety for the students. But I’m starting to think that in an upper-level class it might work well (it does for Ron).

Finally, and this is probably setting the tone for how corny I will be, I like to have a quote (or comic!) at the top of my syllabus. A quote by a famous mathematician always goes a long way, and a comic probably even further. Here are some examples:

  • Calculus: This comic by xkcd.
  • Real Analysis (taught using IBL): “I believe that numbers and functions of Analysis are not the arbitrary result of our minds; I think that they exist outside of us, with the same character of necessity as the things of objective reality, and we meet them or discover them, and study them, as do the physicists, the chemists and the zoologists.” – Charles Hermite.
  • Algorithms in Arithmetic Geometry (we used Sage, Python-based software, for computations): This comic by xkcd and “Arithmetic! Algebra! Geometry! Grandiose trinity! Luminous triangle! Whoever has not known you is without sense!” – Comte de Lautreamont
  • Complex Analysis: “The shortest path between two truths in the real domain passes through the complex domain.” Jacques Hadamard

Usually I write one document that has all the information I describe above, hand it in on the first day, and post it on the class website. But you could easily just have a website with all the important information on it. A lot of the stuff I have put on here is just my preference, but of course, your syllabus (or even lack thereof) should be your own.

So how do you, dear readers, prepare your syllabi? Any other suggestions or tips for the new professors out there?

*By the way, this book is great and I highly recommend it to anyone starting out, even though it’s not exactly about teaching math.


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4 Responses to Syllabus Omnibus

  1. Matilde 127 says:

    I’ve been toying with the following idea, to be applied only after getting tenure (or even fullness), in an advanced undergraduate/first year graduate class:

    Give away 70 homework problems of which 20 are easy, 30 are medium (should be solved with some work), 30 are quite hard (require real ideas, some of them almost impossible). Each correct problem gives the student 1 point independently of the problem’s difficulty. No partial credit. At the end of the term, the student has x points for homework. The exams (either just final, or midterm + final) weigh 100-x for the student.

    I wonder if this is a good idea or a recipe for disaster.

    • Cody Patterson says:

      I really like this idea, Matilde, because it means that students can offset the value of exams (which test relatively quick problem solving and recall) by solving really hard problems in a less-structured setting. My only concern would be the possibility of students acquiring solutions to the harder problems by dishonest means. That and the fact that 20 + 30 + 30 = 80.

  2. Henry Ricardo says:

    You have some good ideas and marvelous enthusiasm. Brava! You wrote “Some people have schedules for the class (like which section of the book we’ll cover each day) and homework assignments for the whole semester.” Unless I was handed a common syllabus for a multisection course, I have never used this rigidly scheduled approach. In an advanced course, you want to be flexible and responsive to student questions at the same time that you are are moving through the important results and examples. With experience you’ll find the right pace. One important thing to learn is when to cut off class questions/discussion (“Can we continue this after class or during my office hours?”) so that you can make some progress. I like this maxim for “reformed” calculus: The purpose is not to COVER the material, but to UNCOVER it.

  3. Ricardo Teixeira says:

    My university requires a schedule of topics. I found it very useful, but I organize it on week-by-week. It makes me go over the course content and plan accordingly, before the semester starts.

    Also, one idea I may consider in the future is a graphical approach to syllabus. There is this great article on The Chronicle:

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