By: Avi Strauss | Editorials  | 

Reading Week is Not for Class, and Other Syllabus Day Musings

As the semester dawned for the 8th time in my college experience, I found my week filled with syllabus day musings.

Most first days begin the same: arbitrarily picking a seat that will become “yours” for the rest of the semester, figuring out if the professor is going to be ok letting you use your laptop, and then scanning the syllabus for grading criteria and due dates.

But first impressions are important, and some professors err critically when it comes to implementing and communicating course policies and schedules.

Before I begin, however, I should note that most professors do not commit the following mistakes and run clear, if otherwise routine and humdrum, syllabus days which prepare students for what to expect in their course.

Still, some professors, whether by word or deed, sour first day goodwill with detrimental course policies.

What I find to be the most egregious of these errors is when a professor pre-determines that Reading Week will be used for class time. According to the Dean’s Office this is technically permissible, as reading week is part of the term, but I still find intentionally beginning the semester in this fashion problematic. Often, the professor will explain the reason why presentations “only fit” into the schedule during Reading Week, or why their own absence in the middle of the semester because of a prior arrangement necessitates a makeup class.

Yet, students don’t have the same luxury. When we have weddings and family events to attend, we can’t expect professors to cover the material for us on dates that fit with our schedules. It is unfair that a professor could impose on students to attend class, during a week specifically reserved for studying the material covered during the other 13 weeks of the semester. Class time during Reading Week has the double effect of adding material for a final, while sucking up time that could otherwise be used to prepare for said final.

To be sure, I don’t believe situations like the one described above are inherently malicious. College courses are, in a way, a partnership between professor and student. Nonetheless, students are at the mercy of a professor when it comes to grades, those pesky and permanent determinants of our “worth,” and few, if any of us, can risk missing material at the tail end of the semester when finals are around the corner.

But the Reading-Week-is-class-time misstep is not the only first day blunder that some professors make. Another somewhat common syllabus day mistake pertains to attendance.

Occasionally, professors will require attendance in class, and threaten to deduct ⅓ of a letter grade for escalating absences, but not include attendance as part of the grading criteria. By this, I mean that a syllabus will outline where quizzes, papers, and exams will count and add up to 100% of a course grade, while leaving attendance conspicuously absent. Yet somehow, the professor insists that even though attendance does not officially compose part of the grading criteria, it is a part of the grading criteria.

I find this troublesome because there is an obvious fix—making attendance part of the grading criteria! Why do some professors insist on leaving attendance outside the scope of what we can earn credit for, but then manage to include its neglect as a potential demerit?

And still, there is another solution for professors when it comes to attendance. If every class leads to instruction on new and relevant material for papers and tests, attendance will surely rise, independent of its inclusion on a syllabus. Science professors are very adept in this regard, teaching material related to their own research interests and that is best explained and learned directly from them, during class. Rarely can notes fully compensate for absences in classes like these.

Further, when classes are enlightening and full of new knowledge that can’t be acquired elsewhere, professors develop a rapport with students, which in turn leads students to enjoy class time.

Yes, of course students should be expected to attend class. And yes, I also would agree that students can be required to attend most classes throughout the semester to ensure they learn the breadth and scope of the course’s material, independent of what someone’s notes or a textbook has to say. But that doesn’t mean these professors cannot simply include attendance in their grading methods, or adjust their material to nudge more students into attending.

And lastly (although I’m sure some would dispute my gripes or have challenged me to include more), I can’t help but mention the issue of keeping students over time on the first day. As students, we understand you’re passionate about the introduction to your course, but it sends the wrong message when even an introduction goes overtime. It certainly doesn’t make students feel that the course will be a balance between being taught at versus being taught with.

To be sure, I think most times when a professor goes overtime is unfair to the students, who all have other obligations, be it classes, davening, meetings, work, or even just a breather. I can understand if a professor keeps students late once in a while—but I also think doing it on the first day is classless.

All of these gripes revolve around a basic premise for success in college—time management. The main way to succeed in our classes is to get a hold on time management and choose how we spend our time wisely. As college students, it would seem we have learned (or are learning) that basic competence.

If that means students choose to miss four sessions of one class to study for two midterms in a different class, so be it. It is on them to read, catch up, visit office hours, and speak to friends to learn the material expected of them. But it should remain their choice to do so if the professor hasn’t explicitly marked “attendance and participation” as part of a course’s grading formula.

If a professor can’t fit all the material they think is important to know for their course into the slots that they are present for, it isn’t reasonable for them to demand of their students to show up on their own time to make up for it.

And if a professor really needs to tack on time to every lecture, starting with the syllabus day introduction, they need to rethink how essential each bit of information they want to teach is, relative to how much students learn when they feel a course is built on mutual respect for time as opposed to a one-sided cram and memorize session.