Why do we Read the Syllabus to our Students on the First Day?
My first day of in-person college was yesterday. Almost twenty years post my first undergrad experience, I've decided to return to school while maintaining my full-time teaching position to learn more about art. I've enrolled in a neighboring university, mostly because I don't want to take class with my students and this university has a more aligned studio art/art history department to what I want to do.
Anyway, it's weird enough being 41 years old and (now) an established professor sitting awkwardly in a room full of sophomores waiting for class to start. Many of their pointed stares were directly aimed at me as they, probably rightly, assumed I had to be the professor. Hiding in the back did not assuage their urging nudges. Yet as class begin, I knew within five minutes I was going to hate this particular class session. The professor, probably rightly, announced that we were about to do something boring:
We were going to spend over an hour going over the syllabus word-for-word.
I've done this. I have absolutely been that professor who sits there and does this. I've absolutely been that professor wondering why the students aren't more engaged on the first day, as I gleefully inject humor into a tirade of legalese ensuring the students' full compliance and attention to each and every course policy. I've absolutely done this because, like many of you, I wanted to cover my ass against mean student emails two months down the road stating how deeply unfair I am as a course policy appeared out of thin air in that moment just to punish them.
But in eight years of teaching, there has been no amount of pre-planning nor clearly articulated sub-clauses written in perfect academic double-speak that has completely eliminated careless student emails. So I have to ask the question: why make the first day of class so goddamn boring and useless?
If the COVID pandemic taught me anything it's that people are perfectly capable of reading content on their own. Now before you jump on this statement rallying against its untruth with 1,197 examples of students who don't read anything, allow me to retort. No one, not even we industrious scholars, reads everything. What I am saying is that a student is perfectly capable of reading a syllabus on their own without us holding their hand, so we should just let that happen as it will.
What if instead of doing something we all know is boring on the first day, we actually did something interesting? Show a clip, provide visual examples, do an activity...tell me why and how this class is going to change my perception of the world instead of flatly reading your course objectives to me (which, by the way, are rarely accessible due to their necessary abstraction). It's also worth mentioning, even if you're teaching upperclassmen, you should still introduce yourself and find some way to have students greet each other. Take the awkwardness out of the room and reveal each other to be people sitting there with a common experiential goal.
You also don't need to abandon the syllabus on the first day in favor of putting on a Robin Williams-eque sideshow. I think it's vital you share truly important items, like your planning methodology and how you will provide assessment--trust me that students want that information first and foremost. Discuss communication and how you wish to be addressed, when you should be contacted, where your office is. If you're still concerned about policy details, then create a simple syllabus quiz on Blackboard to increase the accountability. Take that kind of detail-oriented minutiae offline because time with you is precious and we're all starving for human connection.
And no one is going to connect with you over your well-written syllabus.