Shaping syllabi

— Melissa K. Downes and Jeanne M. Slattery

Lynda Barry's Syllabus.

Lynda Barry (2014).

When people talk about syllabi, they often focus on attendance, texts, number of exams, etc. These are worthy goals, but we think our syllabi are also an opportunity to discuss professional behavior. Recently, we were talking about how we would be structuring our courses, how we might make our syllabi stronger, and our hopes for the upcoming semester. Melissa shared the following policy excerpt from her syllabus. This got both of us thinking.

The short version of this policy is “don’t be a jerk.” Longer? Please don’t sleep in class, eat in class, talk about non-class subjects in small groups (or in class, generally), read non-course-related materials in class, listen to your iPod/MP3 player or keep your ear-buds in, use your cell phone in any way unless I ask you to get it out, or start to pack up before it’s time to leave. I’d add that you should try to avoid being rude, dismissive, or cruel to your colleagues or your teacher or disruptive of the learning environment.

This doesn’t mean you should sit silently and say, “That’s nice,” to everything. Develop an understanding of the difference between this cluster of behaviors: standing up for one’s self, stating one’s opinion, disagreeing with other viewpoints and explaining how and why, being thoughtfully critical, and questioning authority — all good things, in my opinion — and these behaviors: being rude, cruel, dismissive, and/or disruptive. These distinctions are hard to make for many people of many ages and backgrounds (and not everyone agrees absolutely on the distinctions), but being thoughtful about these issues is a good way to become more courteous, more articulate, and more professional.

I think you’ll all use good judgment and take responsibility for your choices, but if someone acts in a manner that disrupts and damages the classroom environment, I reserve the right to lower the student’s grade, temporarily remove the offending material if any, or ask the student to leave the class and mark her/him as absent, as I deem appropriate.

Everything we do is an opportunity to guide our students in thinking about what it means to be a professional. How we talk about professionalism might look different for people in different disciplines and might be affected by specific course outcomes or by teaching philosophies. Melissa’s paragraph was first developed for her College Writing syllabus, where she asks them to think about writing and speaking as more or less purposeful and effective and wants students to think about how different audiences require different choices in terms of behavior and language. However, despite her firm belief in adapting to different audiences, she finds a similar version of this policy works pretty well in her other course syllabi, as well.

This next excerpt is from Jeanne’s Abnormal Psychology syllabus. Her class has somewhat different goals, and she frames professional behavior within the language and ethical standards of her field.

Many of you plan on entering one of the helping professions (e.g., psychology, sociology, speech pathology, nursing, rehabilitative sciences). Given this — and our content — it is especially important for us to begin practicing ethical behavior. This means using Person First language, protecting people’s privacy, talking about people in respectful manners, and listening to and respecting other ideas. This doesn’t mean that you need to agree with everyone else — you may often disagree — but you need to continue to find ways to respectfully and professionally disagree (e.g., using good listening skills, backing up your opinions with strong evidence).

On my part, I promise to listen carefully, encourage critical thinking about the topics we discuss, and work toward a safe, thoughtful, and respectful classroom. I will disguise the identity of the people in my cases and maintain their privacy, ask for my clients’ consent before I talk about them in class, consider other explanations of symptoms, and stay current in my reading of the literature.


Lynda Barry (2014).

We imagine that the professional and classroom behaviors our STEM colleagues emphasize could be very different from those that our colleagues in the arts do, depending on their specific goals, philosophies, and disciplines. (See Lynda Barry‘s [2014] Syllabus for ways that an artist might approach writing a syllabus.) Shouldn’t we help our students learn our expectations — rather than expect them to develop these habits without guidance?

How do you communicate your expectations for classroom behavior? In what ways do you relate your expectations to your discipline? To your specific learning outcomes? To your larger goals as a teacher and professional?


Barry, L. (2014). Syllabus: Notes from an accidental professor. Montreal, Quebec: Drawn and Quarterly.

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at

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