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Syllabus Week: What Students Don’t Want to See

Back to school time can be aggravating for these very reasons

The first week of a new semester usually means one thing for college students: syllabus week.  Whether your school calls it “shopping” or “drop-add,” it usually means a week with little homework and a lot of partying. In between reuniting with folks who spent a semester abroad and shuttling back and forth from Bed Bath and Beyond for dorm room comforts, students listen to their soon-to-be professors outline what the class will learn, his or her classroom policies, and what will be expected from the students over the course of the semester. More than papers due and weekly readings, there are two classroom policies that scar a syllabus: mandatory attendance and laptop bans.

I understand why professors frown upon a sea of laptops or an empty classroom on a Friday morning, but students also justifiably feel contempt when their first interaction with a new professor is a syllabus full of more rules and consequences than the material they are excited to learn.   

Despite studies that praise the benefits of handwritten notes, today’s college students are overwhelmingly plugged-in. Smart phones and tablets let students get their reading done in almost any situation without the burden of a textbook, and everything from tuition to course registration is done online. Why is it that the only place on campus that use of technology is frowned upon is the actual classroom?

I don’t understand why professors shy away from technology rather than embrace the added value technology brings to the classroom. Of course, not all professors treat a laptop as contraband, but a “no laptop” rule in bold print on a syllabus or strict penalties for using any technology more advanced than a ballpoint pen is not what students want to see on the first day of class.

This is not to say that texting in class or paying more attention to Facebook than the lecture is not extraordinarily rude to not only the professor but also other students. It is just as rude as texting during a movie or spending an entire lunch with your parents glued to the Facebook app on your phone. Rather, this is a matter of trust between professors and students—a trust that some professors discard as early as syllabus week.  

When professors have rules that threaten a student’s independence, the trust between professor and student is alienated. While in college, students should be learning how to make choices that will prepare them for a career. Deducting points from their final grade if their cell phone rings during class hardly discourages students from bringing their phones to class or prepares students for future success. Grades should be about learning the material, not following the rules.

It is just as demeaning when a professor makes students sign-in to class like they are showing up for jury duty. Why do professors continue to feel the need to hold their students’ hands with frivolous classroom policies? Threatening to drop a student’s final grade by a full letter due to absences or being late too many times does nothing more than insult the value of grades in general. A good grade should be the product of hard work rather than a reward for perfect attendance.  

Beyond a matter of trust and poor grading standards, I would even go so far as to say that professors that feel the need to enforce mandatory attendance and technology-free classroom policies are sometimes trying to turn the blame for poor teaching on the students. Can you blame students sitting through boring PowerPoint presentations of information found in the reading for wandering to Facebook? Dare to be more interesting than a Wikipedia article with lively class discussions and energy. Give students a reason to close their laptops and come to class!   

   A company may fire an employee for spending half the workday on YouTube or taking too many vacation days, but a college student is not an employee. Tuition is expensive, and student debt is out of control. Most students are paying a lot of money to learn, so if you are a professor who hates laptops or factors attendance into final grades, my simple request is that you trust your students to respect your time rather than threaten them. It may very well teach them a valuable lesson.

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