The Syllabus Genre

What does the syllabus say about teachers and students?

Amy J. Devitt, Ph.D.

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Image by Ron Mader, Flickr, (CC BY-SA 2.0)

So it’s getting to be that time of the summer for those of us who teach in post-secondary schools. Classes at my university start next week, and syllabuses must be prepared. To delay my own prepping a little longer, allow me to do a bit of commenting on the syllabus — that first-day-of-classes document that teachers hand to students with course requirements and information about the semester.

I find the syllabus especially revealing for how genres reflect and shape their contexts. I use it as an example on the first day of classes when I’m teaching anything genre-based, from first-year writing classes to graduate seminars.

Take a look at my standard syllabus first page. I’m sure I learned this formatting and organization from my supervisors and other teachers when I was a newbie. Notice what comes first.

After the course title comes the instructor’s information — name, contact info, office hours. As my first-year students point out, that makes sense since they do need to know how to contact me. Genres do develop as they do for some good reasons.

But notice the absence of students’ contact information. They need to contact each other, too, and I need to contact them. Of course, I can’t publish all their info for other students without their permission. But there’s not even a space on the syllabus for students to write in others’ names, much less their email addresses. Who are the classmates they’re going to spend a semester with?

The syllabus makes no room for such information. All that matters is the instructor.

Such a simple thing, what’s included and what’s not in a genre. But such a powerful statement about what — or who — matters.

If what mattered most was the information most important to students, what might come next after the instructor’s contact info?

I’d guess course requirements and grades — what students will need to do to get the grade…

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Amy J. Devitt, Ph.D.

Writer, teacher, researcher, optimist. I explore language & everyday genres to help people see & choose the language & genres they use. www.amydevitt.com