Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Secrets about Syllabi

OK, this isn't really about secrets about syllabi, but that's a catchy headline and since the Salt Lake Tribune decided to make the addition of safety information in syllabi at the University of Utah a major story (click here), I thought we could talk about it a bit today.

The University of Utah and other institutions of higher learning in the United States are facing many challenges related to campus safety and student mental health.  In the case of campus safety, I think it is safe to say that gun violence is an omnipresent concern, but there are other concerns including rape, sexual assault, harassment, etc.  In the case of student mental health, an increasing number of students at U.S. institutions of higher education, including the University of Utah, are seeking mental health services (see Under Pressure: The Growing Demand for Student Mental Health Services).

As a faculty member and a parent with two kids in college, one at the University of Utah, these issues concern me greatly.  In addition, spending time teaching at the University of Innsbruck earlier this year was a real eye opener.  First, gun violence is much less common in Austria and I can't recall ever having to do active shooter training as I have done both voluntarily and as mandated here at the University of Utah.  Second, stress amongst students is noticeably lower.  I didn't think once about adding statements about campus safety or counseling services to my syllabi there.

Here, however, I've voluntarily included a statement on counseling services in my syllabi for several semesters.  I decided to do this after visiting Penn State where, while discussing the difficulties contemporary students are having managing stress and other challenges, I learned they were requiring such a statement.  I read over their statement, decided it was a good idea, and adopted it to suit my needs.  It's not much, but at least I can mention it to students and let them know that I'm thinking of them and provide them options for professional support. 

I will add the campus safety statement, although I do have some concerns.  As noted in the Tribune article, there are some professors that are concerned that there are simply too many things being added to the syllabus.  Indeed, each semester, I consult the University of Utah Center for Teaching and Learning Excellence Syllabus Checklist, which includes a list of essential and strongly suggested content for syllabi.  It is now seven pages long.  Amongst the essential and strongly suggested content are statements or recommendations to include statements on sexual misconduct, campus safety, the academic code of conduct, student names and personal pronouns, diversity/inclusivity, undocumented student support, faculty and student responsibilities, content accommodations, syllabus changes, plagiarism software policies, official drop/withdraw date, attendance/tardy policy, wellness statement, the veterans center, learners of English as a second language, plus some additional statements concerning online and hybrid courses.

I don't wish to argue that any of these are unimportant, and I recognize that it is my option to include some of these in my syllabus, but the University needs to think much more carefully about how to prioritize this information and select what is most effectively provided via a syllabus versus other means of dissemination.  As the proverb goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions."  There are certainly good intentions behind these efforts, but with prioritization and pruning, we have a better chance of ensuring that our desires lead to effective outcomes.  Just because the syllabus is a convenient place to add statements, doesn't mean that it will be an effective place to provide information.  Let's make it easier for students to sip from the fountain of knowledge rather than being soaked by a firehose.

1 comment:

  1. The SPC has a marginal risk up for the west deserts into parts of the Wasatch Front this afternoon and evening. Any thoughts on the severe potential this afternoon?