Dawn of a New Semester, or, Syllabus Day

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hansonBy Erik Hanson

The last Sunday before classes resume, and I could be found going over my schedules and rosters, taking a last-minute look at the syllabi, and shuffling necessary files from my desktop directory to my trusty USB drive. After a couple hours, the duet my grinding teeth and frazzled nerves sang had reached a fevered pitch, and I cursed the foolishness of spending so much of my time doing something other than class prep over the holidays; what was I thinking, taking the word break literally?

Right before the breakdown, a clarity of mind swept in and reminded me (in my own voice, luckily), “All you’re going to do is go over the syllabus.” My sweet sanity’s salvation was the realization that the bulk of day one would be spent going over class expectations, making sure everyone has the right textbooks (much less being in the right room), and just generally setting the tone for the weeks to come. I’m not sure why, but that sounds too simple.

Thinking back to my first adjunct orientation, one of our speakers discussed the effectiveness of instructional methods, specifically mentioning the blasé Syllabus Day at one point. And it’s true; the typical syllabus is going to have universal elements required by law and/or the institution (e.g. contact information, academic integrity policies, information for students with special needs), and even the sections in which individual instructors can claim ownership don’t tend to vary all that much. Despite all that, I can’t recall a single class I took in which the first meeting was spent doing anything other than reviewing the syllabus—and in all but a few occurrences a relatively early dismissal as well—but the manner in which we approached each syllabus was unique to that particular instructor.

For example, I can’t bring up one specific instance of policies against plagiarism, because no matter how differently they’re presented, they’re all still fundamentally the same. On the other hand, I recall one of my first literature professors in grad school leading us through an analysis of the nuances he’d purposefully planted within his seminar’s syllabus, spending nearly half an hour on the first paragraph alone. Some might offhandedly dismiss such an activity as boring, but it was anything but—tiring would be one word to describe it, considering my first day expectations didn’t include thinking anywhere near that hard, and yet surprisingly interesting.

Upon reflection, the main thing Syllabus Day did for that class was, as I said before, to set the tone. Once a student has their syllabus in hand, they can always refer back to it for expectations, and knowing what the required books are shouldn’t be an issue after the first day; setting the tone, like a first impression, isn’t something one can go back and redo.

It’s safe to assume that a New Adjunct will need to prove they’ve got the chops before getting their hands on the higher level courses, so here’s my approach: asking questions, soliciting questions, and prompting discussion are things that I try to accomplish on Syllabus Day. The way I see it, with incoming students hailing from all manner of demographics, discussing upcoming projects helps to begin the demystification process and asking questions gives me a glimpse of the group’s general comprehension of and experience with things to come. I also hope it gives the impression that I’m approachable for those who may struggle and find themselves in need of help.

About the Adjunct: Erik Hanson completed his MA in English with an emphasis in Creative Writing from the University of Northern Iowa, where he also earned his BA in German, during which time he spent one year studying abroad in Austria. Thus far, his teaching portfolio consists of developmental writing and composition courses. In those rare moments when he is not in class or tutoring English students, he can usually be found hunched over his keyboard with a cup of coffee, working on short fiction or developing his novel.

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