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MLA 2020: “(Against) The Syllabus as an Instrument of Cruelty”

At this year’s MLA Convention, I was a member of a great panel discussing “The State of the Syllabus”. It was tremendously well attended, especially for a session on the very first day of the Convention. My contribution was a brief discussion of the syllabus as an instrument of cruelty. (Originally, I proposed it as “instrument of abuse”, building off of the Jesse Stommel Tweet that inspired me to think about the topic in the first place, but because I’ve been writing and thinking about “cruelty-free syllabi” over the last 6 months or so, I ended up using “cruelty” rather than “abuse” in my final title.

I have a short piece appearing in an upcoming issue of Syllabus about these ideas, but my presentation at MLA is more conversational than that piece — it is written to be heard, not read on the page. But even though the text is a bit thin outside of its context, it may be worth preserving nonetheless.

(Against) The Syllabus as Instrument of Cruelty

by Matthew Cheney, Plymouth State University

MLA 2020, Seattle

After a decade of teaching high school, I became a college teacher, and I was determined from the get-go to prove my authority. The first place I tried to do so was in my syllabus and the course policies it laid out. Thou shalt not was the subtext of most of those policies. I assumed that students were going to try to get away with things, and it was my job to stop them.

My assumption that a college syllabus should be authoritarian and even perhaps cruel was born of ideas I had received, absorbed, and not questioned — ideas from influences more disparate than my own experience, which on the whole had been quite positive and nurturing. But my idea of college was not of my experience; instead, it was of some Platonic ideal of College. Such College, I thought, must be rigorous. But I had not examined my assumptions deeply enough to know that what I called rigor was closer, in practice, to cruelty.

Rigor and cruelty do not need to be synonymous. In trying to weed out the cruelty in my syllabi, I have learned that that cruelty is as much a matter of attitude and assumptions about students as it is about content. Indeed, most cruelty finds its way into our courses not in the content, but in the policies and structures we create for our courses. We ban things, we prescribe and proscribe behavior, we assume the role of dictator and build elaborate punishments for our every pet peeve. We do not trust students.

And there’s the crux of cruelty. The educator and scholar of teaching and learning Jesse Stommel has often said that his basic philosophy of teaching is simple: Trust students. When I first heard this, I will admit, I thought it was naïve. But thinking about it, I had to examine my assumptions. Students will get away with things, I thought. But why did I think this? What was the evidence? And let’s say there is evidence — what is it evidence of? What motivates such behavior? Whatever the motivation, cruelty and distrust will not stop it, and may only make it worse, because if you do not trust students, then they have no reason to trust you, and are more likely to go out of their way to hide from you.

I have adjusted my attendance policies, abandoned a punitive cell phone policy, abandoned late work policies, and de-emphasized evaluative grading so as to emphasize feedback and revision — all in favor of encouraging conversation with students. Now, for instance, rather than having a policy about cell phones or laptops, I talk with students early on in class about all of our habits with technology, about what habits bother us and what don’t, what effect our behaviors with our technology do to our experience of the classroom. I want my students to be thoughtful in their use of technology, but I also want them to answer emergency phone calls if they get them, just as I’m going to do.

I encourage students to talk to me if they are not on schedule with their work, and I seek them out if they don’t turn work in, because I want to know what’s going on. I tell students that they don’t need to contact me for the first week of classes that they miss — life happens, after all — but that they need to get in touch if they miss more than one week, and I will seek them out if they don’t. I do this repeatedly throughout the year, and with a spirit of trust and inquiry, not punishment: “I noticed that you missed class,” I say. “Let me know if I can help with anything.” Sometimes, the student just overslept — maybe their alarm didn’t go off, or maybe, like one of my students, they’re working 50 hours a week at a job to pay for school and are terribly sleep deprived. Sometimes, they have a chronic illness. Sometimes, they have a family emergency. Whatever it is, an opening for conversation is there. Since doing this, I have better attendance in my classes, and, more importantly, a better understanding of what’s going on with my students’ attendance.

Trust students. Seek out the distrust and cruelty in your syllabus. Be rigorous, definitely — be fierce in your commitment to intellectual exploration and curiosity, but know that distrust and cruelty are the enemies of exploration, the enemies of curiosity.

Trust students. Don’t be cruel.