Syllabus Week is for Losers

It’s happening again: The winter migration of some 20 million college and university students back to campus.

It’s a good thing for them. And for us! For students, a post-secondary degree will pay off in terms of salary and life-style. After graduation, these former-student will enter the workforce, create more jobs, develop new technologies and contribute to our national welfare, to the benefit of us all.

But on some campuses, the first week of some classes is a waste. Deemed Syllabus Week by students, this first week of class is often devoted to reviewing the syllabus, while teachers wait until the time for adding or dropping the course is over before completing any actual classwork or grading.

Of course, students don’t put up a fight. More time to drink, sleep and screw around! Local bars even have Syllabus Week drink specials and promotions.

From a local bar’s Instagram feed this week.

Many of my senior students don’t even come to class the first week, just assuming it will be a blow off. Upon their arrival in class the next week, they are genuinely surprised to discover that they have missed the first assignment and that late assignments are not allowed (at least not without clear evidence of a broken limb or a photo of their dead grandmother: it’s in the syllabus!).

In a world where the pace of change is quickening and technology enables all sorts of jobs to go where labor is cheap (including accounting, design, software development, writing, you name it), how is Syllabus Week still a thing?

Nations around the world are doubling their efforts to win the race to the top of the economic ladder. The walls that have held competition at bay have fallen. And students overseas are not spending the first week of the semester doing nothing, eating all day, and napping.

“..when you’re out there partying, horsing around, someone out there at the same time is working hard. Someone is getting smarter and someone is winning.”
— Arnold Schwarzenegger

The blame for the syllabus week phenomenon lies with the teachers and professors who allow it.

In the age of online course management systems (CMS), email, face-time, YouTube, texting and a thousand other ways to communicate with students, how is Syllabus Week still a thing?

The week BEFORE the first week of class is syllabus week. That is the time for student to login to their CMS, read the syllabus, get the lay of the land and ask questions. At most, discussion of the syllabus during the first week should take a few minutes. The rest of the time should be spent getting to work, learning how to learn, and starting the material.

If my argument so far fails to convince you that syllabus week needs to die, then consider the economics of the situation.

The College Board estimates that it costs an average of $24,610 to attend a four-year public college at the in-state tuition rate. Tuition makes up about $9,000 of this amount and the rest is transportation, housing and food.

$12,305 of expenses per semester, divided by 16 weeks is $769. So your student is paying $769 for a week off. Over the course of 8 semesters of a typical BS/BA degree, that comes to $6,152 to pay for syllabus week fun (plus drink and condom costs).

If you think that is an unfair calculation and you want to only count the cost of tuition: $282 per semester or $2250 during a four year program of study.

Let’s look at it from the professor side. Consider a teaching professor that makes $70,000 for a nine-month contract: $70,000 for 32 weeks of teaching equals $2,187 per week. So, twice a year, the institution pays $2,187 for the professor to stand in a classroom and read the syllabus. Can’t Siri or Alexa do that?

With tuition costs rising faster than about anything else, syllabus week should simply be banned by all public institutions. We can’t be asking for more public support of our institutions of higher education and then take the first week off!

Many institutions have tried to use a carrot to get instructors to make productive use of the first week, touting the benefits of making a great first impression on teaching evaluations. That helped, but syllabus week is still alive and kicking.

It is time to start using a stick.