Life After the Syllabus

By Scott Keith


Sorry gang, I’m taking a break from theology for the week for some tried and true cultural criticism. I know this will come as blessed relief to those who find most of what I write to be heterodox.

When I was in college in the 90s, the first week of class was an exciting adventure. The first week was an adventure because I typically knew nothing about the class beyond the title and the name of the instructor. Even upon receiving the course syllabus, I knew little. Then, a syllabus explained the basics of the class: a general outline of assignments, very basic schedule, and assigned books. That was it.

I was shocked and surprised when I began teaching again some years ago and discovered that the standard syllabus is typically twenty pages or more. You heard me right, twenty pages! Why? Well, I suppose there are several reasons, up to and including increasing demands from the Federal Government and accrediting agencies to includes volumes of assessment data related material. But, I think that the main reason has to do with millennial paralysis.


Millennial paralysis is that phenomenon I explained in the blog entitled, “Overcoming Millennial Paralysis.” When a student suffers from millennial paralysis, they are unable to make a decision or act unless said decisions or actions are accompanied by explicit instructions. Thus, we professors––in order to head off millennial paralysis––write voluminous syllabi that attempt to answer every question which might be lingering in the minds of our so easily paralyzed students.

Every possible reading is catalogued. Each assignment is segmented into its various sub groups and sub assignments, listed, given a rubric, due date, and added to the syllabus. Every day off, every school break, and even the final exam schedule is listed. Each policy (attendance, academic dishonesty, reading, participation) expanded upon in droll detail. Heck, some instructors include a brief CV in their syllabus. Quite frankly, I find it a tad ridiculous.

In our attempts to head off any possible piece of nuance related to the courses we teach, we instead act like their ever-present helicopter parents; hovering about in order to make sure they never need make an independent decision. What we do to help them, in the long run, hurts them. College is in part about learning to figure things out. What is this professor like? How does he/she like papers written? Does he/she care if I come to class every day or not? These are things that college students and professors at one point figured out about one another over time, using discussion and relationship. Now, to avoid student meltdowns, we tell them up front and trade relationship and conversation for a “cover your ass” mentality.


I was in a meeting this week wherein I entered into a discussion with some of my colleagues regarding Generation iY (Millennials) going to work. That’s right gang, they are now graduating college and headed out into the workplace. Needless to say, the data suggests that they are not ready. They have, on the whole, never had to hold down a job or worked with little supervision. Worse, we’ve helped them participate in a college experience devoid of nuance, decision making, and adult conversation. Instead of doing the hard thing and walking them through the transition from concrete to formal operations, we’ve kept them where they came in, and we, unfortunately, are more comfortable if they stay there.

But what happens when they graduate and no longer have a syllabus to direct them through every stage of their work life? I don’t know. My guess is that many will flounder and struggle. I think we could do something about this before they get to the workplace. I think we can say enough is enough, and let them live with a little nuance in the classroom. Life is full of nuance and uncertainty and we do them no go by delaying their introduction to these realities of life.

But, short of blowing it all up, what can we actually do? I came across this suggestion in an article called “Syllabus Tyrannus by Rebecca Schuman. “Explain to your students, face-to-face, that even though a syllabus is a contract, it’s an inappropriately developed one, comprised of transparent ass-covering and bad intentions, and that any college course actually worth attending is going to begin with least some air of mystery about what you ‘need’ to get an A.”

She hit the nail on the head. It is the mystery, the unknown, the risk that makes learning an adventure. It is the mystery, the unknown, and the risk that makes life and adventure. When we remove those wonderful aspects of the educational experience, we’ve made what is supposed to be exciting dull and worth much less than it inherently is. Furthermore, if we do this, we will have in subtle ways taught our students, and soon to be coworkers, that life is supposed to be an adventure and a challenge, not an inherently safe zone.

Life after the syllabus will mean that we have taught our students what they need is to learn and learn well, to engage and engage well, and to figure out complex problems, that they might first fail at only to then learn how to engage, successfully. Life under the syllabus can’t be like life under helicopter parents unless we want Millennials (Gen iY) and beyond to be about as useful as a poopy flavored lollypop in their life after the syllabus.