Higher EducationPedagogy

“Syllabus Day” Happens for a Reason

It’s Back-to-School season again, also known to educators as time for classroom-management think pieces, syllabus guides, curricular critiques, and ritual lamentations for summer to make their yearly rounds on social media.

Popular among my colleagues this year has been this critique of the phenomenon of “Syllabus Day” by Kevin Gannon, in which he declares in no uncertain terms that going over the syllabus, taking care of a few administrative tasks, and sending students on their way a few minutes early is “the worst possible way to start the semester.” And yet, he laments, students have come to expect this travesty because we educators have trained them to do so through our collective abdication of paedagogical responsibility.

Okay, maybe he doesn’t say that last part outright, but it’s definitely in the subtext.

Absent from Gannon’s account of this “hallowed tradition” is any attempt to discern why it might have come about. Syllabus Day is regarded simply as a weakness to be addressed through “mindful planning” rather than a response by professors as rational actors to systemic institutional forces that are largely beyond their control.

I know I personally would love to take Gannon’s advice and use my first class meetings for something instructive–to give students a taste of the semester to come by presenting interesting material or organising specific activities. In fact, when I first started teaching this is exactly what I tried to do on the first day of class. And then I stopped, for reasons.

Here’s the biggest one: in many classes and at many schools, enrollment is not really fixed until about the second week. This occurs for a variety of reasons, from actual scheduling changes at the administrative level to students’ course shopping. In practical terms it means that: 1) Many students in the room on the first day of classes will not be staying, and 2) Many students who will actually be taking the class for credit are simply not there on the first day.

Much as we might like to dive right in to the course material, the fact that a large number of students who will be evaluated in the course are not in the room on the first day is a structural-administrative problem with major paedagogical implications. Holding late-enrollers responsible for first-day material they missed makes it harder for them to get up to speed and more likely to become discouraged early on, often through no fault of their own. At the same time, if first-day material is extraneous enough to the course’s mission that missing it has no negative consequences–what’s the point, exactly? To capture the interest of the course shoppers and encourage them to stick around? Sorry, I have better things to do.

Furthermore, on the first day of class it’s a pretty safe bet that the vast majority of students are walking in with no course materials or preparation, even if these things are advertised in advance. This limits the kind of classroom activities it is possible to engage in. A discussion? Of what? Certainly not anything they can be expected to have read beforehand. Anything to be discussed will first have to be presented or distributed. There might be time for this in a 90-minute class or a longer seminar but certainly not in under an hour if you plan to discuss the syllabus and other administrative details.

Several of Gannon’s suggestions are just part-and-parcel of standard Syllabus Day activities, at least in my experience. Discussing course structure? What else could going over the syllabus even mean? Learning names is also pretty standard practice for the first day, with the exception of lectures with hundreds of students in which this is impossible in the time allotted.

Here, for the record, is what I do on Syllabus Day in a standard 50-minute class.

  • Wait a few extra minutes for people to find the classroom for the first time. Trying to start on time is usually futile. (3 min)
  • Announce the name of the course and its code in the catalogue, its meeting times, and give an elevator description of what it is about (2 minutes)
  • Introduce myself to the students, including a few details about my research expertise (2 min)
  • Introduce TAs, if there are any (2 min)
  • Pass out the syllabus if it is on paper and/or show students how to get to it online through the course website (2 minutes)
  • Physically show the students all required course materials such as textbooks, and tell them where to find them and what they cost (5 minutes)
  • Actually go over every section of the syllabus, pausing for questions at each section (20 minutes)
  • If the class has under 50 students, have them introduce themselves (5-10 minutes)
  • Ask if there are any general questions not covered so far (usually 2 minutes)

Aaaaaaand, damn, out of time.

I guess I could try to eat up those one-to-eight spare minutes with something else assuming everything happens on schedule with no other delays. But, honestly, I think we’d all just rather go home.

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Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.


  1. August 28, 2016 at 6:42 pm —

    I know I sometimes get the 1:15 or 1:50 courses, where I can start a lecture.  But another thing I find helpful is to do some math warmup/review.  I teach physics/astronomy, and this tends to be sorted by math ability — we have mostly qualitative courses, algebra-based courses, and calculus-based courses, all listed as introductory.  And students sometimes slip past the ‘prerequisites’*.  So, bringing math up helps students know what the course will be like and make a decision.  Students coming late will get some of that from a normal lecture, or any past notes you give them.

    *I have been told that can be fixed, but I suspect I still might run into students who had calculus, but have forgotten most of it.

  2. August 29, 2016 at 5:07 pm —

    Since my courses also don’t usually have prerequisites (I’m normally building up music knowledge and vocabulary from scratch, either in electives or intro surveys), I don’t often have that option available.

    In situations where I have more time (like 90-minute classes) I’m still a bit hesitant when it comes to presenting any material that students would be expected to know for an exam. I haven’t taught any longer sections recently, but at this point I think I’d use the extra time in the first class to work on a few epistemology/critical thinking exercises. That way those who do stay can benefit from them in their approach to my class, and those who don’t stay at least have a new idea or two to bring along wherever they are going.

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