Angles: Should Augie establish a syllabi archive for students?

Augustana Student Association Senator Fahd Nazir spearheaded a syllabi archive initiative this academic school year. The archive would have been an online database where students could view syllabi for courses before registering for their next semester of classes. 

The initiative was put to a vote at the Dec. 2, 2020, faculty meeting, where professors voiced their concerns and their support for the proposed archive. Ultimately, the syllabi archive was voted down by faculty.

Colleges across the United States have syllabi archives, such as Villanova University, San Jose State University and Western Illinois University.

The big South Dakota universities — the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University — do not have an online database with previous and current course syllabi.

Augustana professor of counseling psychology Benjamin Jeppsen argues below that a syllabi archive would diminish communication between students and faculty. Jeppsen teaches courses in counseling and psychotherapy.

Augustana senior English and journalism major Anna Sorenson argues that a syllabi archive would relieve student stress when deciding which courses to register for and allow students to prepare for their upcoming semesters. Sorenson is from Brandon, South Dakota.

No, there are better alternatives to an archive

Benjamin Jeppsen, psychology professor

When I first came for my campus tour and interviews to teach at Augie, there was one factor that impressed me more than anything else: the student-faculty relationship. I had never heard of Augustana University, nor had I ever planned to live in the Midwest. But when I came to this campus, interacted with the students and saw firsthand the relationship that faculty had with them, I was sold.  This school has something special in how faculty and students work together to create powerful and unique learning experiences. Part of this is facilitated by our size; another part is the frequent individual interactions between students and professors.  

Although a syllabi archive for students sounds like a simple idea that makes things easier for students, there are implications to consider that, in my opinion, make it a bad idea. I believe this kind of change is another step in the direction of making this campus more like larger institutions — where students don’t get more information about a course directly from the instructor, but instead from an archived piece of paper. 

I can understand the good intentions here. Students would have easy access to the assignments, schedule and general expectations for courses as they plan their schedules.  Good decisions are based on good information, so this has potential to make academic planning easier for students. I like that idea. It can be especially helpful for any who are working while going to school or have other personal matters that could disrupt a too-busy schedule. I have heard it argued that it is for these students in particular that the archive would be especially helpful. However, it is for these students that a meeting with the professor would be even more valuable. 

An archived syllabus will not tell the student about potential changes to the course, and it definitely won’t give the student a sense of what accommodations the professor might be able to make to help an overwhelmed student succeed. The course becomes frozen to the student’s interpretation of the syllabus — even if there is a disclaimer that the course might be different. 

I have had multiple student-athletes, working students and struggling students stop by my office to discuss how my class might work for them and their current situation. In those conversations I am able to give them a far clearer picture of what my class is like and what the workload will be. I have also made many adaptations to class expectations for students in special circumstances. None of that would have been possible if the student didn’t first come to me and start the conversation. 

I understand that students may feel intimidated or anxious about having that conversation, and that’s a driver in developing this archive, but it’s also exactly why it shouldn’t happen. If something makes us feel anxious, and there is an alternative that makes us feel less anxious, then we will take the alternative. We live in a world where anything that appears to be anxiety or stress-reducing is championed as a virtue for mental health. However, the science of anxiety is very clear that avoidance feeds anxiety — it doesn’t treat it. 

When we take alternatives to avoid a healthy action that makes us feel anxious, we negatively reinforce avoidance. Talking to your professors is a healthy action that will yield far more information than a syllabus, and — maybe more importantly — it provides the professor with important contextual information about the student. This allows us to make accommodations that will make our courses more accessible to students with extenuating circumstances. 

If a syllabi archive is available, students will be significantly less likely to visit professors to have a conversation about the course. Though the student-faculty relationships that characterize this campus won’t be lost, it is one step towards further separation. It prevents personalized adaptation that is possible in the classes taught here. It means we’ll talk to each other a little less — and that’s the last thing we need. 

Yes, less stress for students when registering

Anna Sorenson, senior English and journalism major

Registering for courses can be incredibly stressful. Students balance their classes with outside activities, take interesting courses and make sure they are satisfying their major’s requirements. Having access to a syllabi archive would decrease that stress and help students better prepare for upcoming semesters.

Although most class schedules are somewhat dictated by a student’s degree requirements, there are often opportunities for Augie students to pick from a variety of classes within an area of SOPHIA or simply fill out their schedule by taking an elective for fun. Since Augie is a liberal arts university, we are encouraged to take classes outside the comfort zone of our major.

That being said, it can be daunting to try to find a class that satisfies graduation requirements, is also interesting to us and won’t overburden us with an extreme amount of homework. As of now, students have to make these course decisions based on the title of the class and what they’ve heard from other students. Often, we go in blind, not knowing what to expect until after the first day. 

Looking at past syllabi to get a better understanding of the course structure and workload would allow us to make an informed decision about how to achieve academic success in the coming semester. We would take classes that interested us — motivating us to work harder in the course — or take classes that would accommodate and work well with other courses required by our majors.

Knowing what our classes would be like before the first day would also help students better prepare for their upcoming semester. Students could get organized sooner or even mentally prepare if they know they have a challenging semester ahead.

Picking classes is an important decision. We are essentially deciding how we want to spend the next several months. Our classes play a huge role in our college careers. The course subject dictates what we read, discuss and think about. The workload affects our stress levels and personal well-being. The timing of our assignments influences our sleep schedules and our free time. With how much our classes shape our semesters, we should be as informed as possible when selecting our courses.

A comprehensive syllabi archive would be especially helpful for students who are involved outside of their studies. Students who play a sport, play an instrument, have an off- or on-campus job or are part of an on-campus organization in addition to taking classes would benefit from the archive. They would be able to better plan for their upcoming semester, knowing how their classes would work with their extra-curricular activities. 

I understand that from a professor’s perspective, having a syllabi archive could present some challenges. It may make it more difficult to adjust syllabi or may affect how many students choose to take a class. But technology makes it relatively easy to update an online archive. And although there are some who might opt not to take a course because of the workload, faculty have to trust that for other students, interest in a topic will outweigh the fear of too much homework.

Furthermore, I know that students don’t actually know how a course will progress until the class has started. What’s printed on the syllabi isn’t an exact reflection of the professor and how the class will play out.

But syllabi are incredibly important. They tell the student about the course, the professor and  the next three and half months. And they also give faculty a foundation for their goals, desired structure and expectations. By making an informed decision about what they are going to undertake, students can be ready for their classes and professors can start the semester with interested, prepared pupils.

2 responses to “Angles: Should Augie establish a syllabi archive for students?”

  1. I am confused where the notion that “students may feel intimidated or anxious about having that conversation, and that’s a driver in developing this archive” comes from. The archive has no intention to replace any form of professor-student communications, and frankly, I don’t see how it would. This point is expounded on in stating, “If a syllabi archive is available, students will be significantly less likely to visit professors to have a conversation about the course” which seems like an empty correlation due to a lack of sufficient evidence or explanation. Students should not have to reach out to professors to have a one-on-one to have the contents of the class explained. If the syllabus doesn’t justly explain the class and requires an in-person explanation, that is the fault of the professor, not the student.

  2. In my near three years at Augustana University, I’ve never had a conversation about a course with the professor teaching it. Never. Okay once, but that was about the required internship required of the major. Just the thought of doing that makes no sense to me whatsoever. Moreover, didn’t the faculty-led curriculum committee approve these efforts? A faculty-wide vote failed. “No, there are better alternatives” should be an easy argument to move on from.

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