What do our “Overly Honest Syllabi” remarks say about how we approach our craft?


Sometimes, an idea gets explosively popular for a day or two. Earlier this week, that happened with the twitter hashtag for Overly Honest Syllabi, for university instructors who made remarks on ideas that might cut too deep to share with students in writing. But somehow it’s okay to broadcast it globally on twitter.

If you’re a twitter person, it was #overlyhonestsyllabi. Non-twitter people: Ugh, I know.

I tried my hand at a few:

@hormiga: Extra credit, schmextra credit

@hormiga: Don’t apologize after you skip class. It’s not a personal offense. Your choices merely reflect your priorities.

@hormiga: You’re over 18, you’re an adult. I’m treating you like one and expect you to act like one, whether you like it or not.

These are all concepts that I find often find myself explaining to students throughout the semester, and if students actually read the syllabi closely, then including these in an overly honest syllabus might save me a number of redundant conversations.

I guess I broke the rules of twitter, because those are things that I do put in the syllabus, or tell my students on the first day of class. They all know that I don’t take attendance, I don’t assign extra credit opportunities, and I don’t take it personally if they choose to skip class because they need to approach their role in the classroom professionally. My students also know that they’re my top priority tied to my job, that I will respond as promptly as reasonably possible to correspondence, and that I vow that they will not be surprised by anything at all on the exams. And a whole bunch of other stuff.

However, there were all kinds of approaches to this hashtag genre, that were different from my own.

If you want to read about a bunch of ugly ones by professors who don’t seem to have much respect for their students, then here is a blog post by someone else about that. (The comments on the post, in my view, are particularly interesting, so check those out.) The author of the post had an experience teaching first-generation students from underrepresented groups, with many non-scholastic obligations who were “at risk.” (Maybe she was adjuncting at my university, for all I know.) Anyway, this experience with students who are underprepared and are accustomed to little support was a huge amount of work and a huge inspiration. I know where the author is coming from and I’ve been fortunate enough to have that kind of job every semester.

So, I’m also sensitive when faculty do things that show overt disrespect for their students. And there was plenty of that in this distributed conversation on twitter, because, well, most university instructors don’t seem to enjoy teaching. That’s not news, though. Some professors are jerks. Our students often act unprofessionally when they interact with us. Dealing with inappropriate behavior by some students is part of our job. Working with underprepared students is definitely our job. Venting on twitter only alienates the students, who are listening to this conversation.

There were a couple other currents in this Overly Honest Syllabi conversation that were really interesting. One was that faculty want to inform students about the feudal state of universities and the fact that the bulk of instruction comes from poorly paid part-time labor:

@phillyprof03: B4 you complain that your adjunct prof didn’t spend enough time mtg w/ you, know that many of them teach at 4-5 places.

@drugmonkeyblog: I am an adjunct and yes, I teach this same class over at the CC. You could pay a quarter of what the U is charging.

@GracieG: I am an adjunct faculty member who has been hired to teach this class for less than your student loan refund check.

@_JoyCastro: Be aware that there’s only a 30% chance I’m a tenure-line professor. More likely, I’m overworked & underpaid.

While ironic humor is typically overvalued on twitter, there are also some spectacular ones that show the great hearts of faculty, especially Dr. Dez:

@docdez: This class is a SOOC (Small, Optimal, Offline Course). Thank your lucky stars, and use it to your advantage.

@docdez: While all emails will be answered, you’ll get more pedagogical bang for your tuition buck if you talk to me in person.

@docdez: Let’s not both simply aim to survive this semester. Let’s shoot for thriving.

@drisis: The non-traditional student working and trying to take your class may think college is not viable for them

@Salmon_language: My comments will be intentionally illegible because it’s the only way I can get any of you to come to office hours.

@drdanoconnor: “I’d never let on, but these two hours with you guys are actually my favorite part of the job”

And, once again, there are a ton of jerky ones out there. Some professors seemingly don’t understand that when there is a power differential, and differences in experience and maturity, all people still deserve equal respect.

Students seeing this might, justifiably, look at this conversation and realize that their professors are inclined to mock them once they step away from the classroom. And, there can be truth to that, and I’ve once worked in an environment like that.

For students reading this, let me reassure you that this is far from universal, and the bulk of your faculty have good intentions and are working with the goal of your success. Some are better at it than others, and many of them have a hard time understanding where you’re coming from. You probably have a good idea which of your professors respect you, because respect is shown with deeds.

The internet, like everything else, can be a lens. A lens is only as good as where you focus.

What is the big lesson in “Overly Honest Syllabi” for students? I think it was summed up best by a colleague of mine:

@Jspagna1: While a professional, your instructor is human and can’t help but take some things personally.

8 thoughts on “What do our “Overly Honest Syllabi” remarks say about how we approach our craft?

  1. Thank you for this post. I don’t think it was intended to do so, but #overlyhonestsyllabi tweets turned into something ugly. But, I did want to share, that one of the ones that really rubbed me the wrong way was actually one of the ones you posted:

    “Don’t apologize after you skip class. It’s not a personal offense. Your choices merely reflect your priorities.”

    As an undergraduate, I worked full time while in school to help pay tuition and bills, mostly nights. I only ever missed one class in four years. I’m still not sure exactly how it happened, but as I remember it, I was trying to catch some sleep after a night shift, at the beginning of a new semester. When I woke up, I was certain that my evening class was at 5pm (it really started at 4pm). So, I strolled in an hour late… and was immediately mortified. I felt like I had disrespected the teacher, I had missed half the lecture, and I was completely disoriented.

    I apologized profusely to the teacher, but the look she on her face and her words reflected your tweet.

    My “priority” was to attend class, and get the most out of every course that – even working full-time, and being awarded thousands in student aid – I was racking up $45,000 in student loans to attend. Sure, there are students who skip because they don’t see the value in their education, or who aren’t paying their own way, or who view it as a right, not a privilege to attend college. But that wasn’t me.

    I made a mistake, and I gave a genuine apologize. I wasn’t looking for a hand-out, or extra help. I just wanted to let my teacher know that I valued her teaching and was sincerely sorry for missing the lecture. In return, I got snark, and judgement.

    • Wow – thanks for commenting rather than not! This is really interesting.

      I didn’t intend for my “overly honest” message to be some kind of Rorschach test. [looked it up and was shocked to find that I spelled it right initially!] There was no intended snark or judgement. In fact, the absolute opposite notion was intended. As I just wrote now (on twitter): “There’s so much sarcasm on twitter, any positive sincere statement is at risk of being read as an ironic insult.”

      My point was to communicate that I don’t take it personally when a student misses the class. That means that I’m not judging the student, either.

      Aside from oversleeping after working, and getting a schedule mixed up (both understandable on the first day of class), students that don’t show up at class do so because they have something else of higher priority. I think this breaks down into two generalized categories:

      -Category A: The thing of higher priority probably shouldn’t be a higher priority. For example, I once had a student plan a 4-day ski weekend and wanted me to waive any quizzes he might miss in that time, and give him extra time to turn in homework. And more absurd stuff. That communicates that school is a relatively low priority. I’m not judging the student for that, and I won’t make accommodations in these cases but I’ve also designed my grading scheme so that it doesn’t overtly punish students who have things crop in their schedules. If they want to prioritize skiing over class, that’s fine by me. I’m long past judging students this way.

      -Category B: The student may take school very, very seriously, but they can’t make it to class because of something that is an even higher priority. This includes putting food on the table, not getting fired from a job, taking care of a sick infant or ill family member, and so on. I have this happen a lot – many of my students are providing for their families, who are also making incredible sacrifices so that the students are able to attend college, often the first in the entire family to do so. They might have unreasonable bosses that demand them to show up at work on short notice or be fired, and they also have extended families that often have very serious issues that need to be dealt with. So, these students prioritize their families and their ability to pay rent over being in class one day. I don’t take any personal offense, and they don’t need to apologize.

      I don’t want to be in a position to evaluate whether a student who misses class has a valid reason to not be there, and I also want to be wholly accommodating of students who have really serious and legitimate reasons to miss class. So, I don’t make attendance at any single class high stakes. Exams are trickier but I am flexible if at student gives me heads up. Usually students miss because a crisis of some sort pops up, and the last thing I’ll want to do is make anybody feel bad because they had to miss class. Our students – definitely our biology majors – are in college at extraordinarily high personal and family cost (economically and otherwise) – and they don’t miss unless there’s a really good reason. So, I don’t want them to apologize, as I realize it’s nothing personal.

      That’s really what I meant in my tweet. It also works for the trust fund private school kid who wants to go skiing, too, but I haven’t had one of those in years.

      How’s that for overexplaining! By the way, folks, those of you still reading – be sure to read Melissa’s awesome blog, mathbionerd (http://www.mathbionerd.blogspot.com/).

      I have a feeling that if you were my undergrad and had missed my class, I probably would have been concerned about you because it

      • I love overexplaining! Thank you for taking the time.

        You are totally right that I read it as being sarcastic. Among the #overlyhonestsyllabi that were overwhelmingly sarcastic, it wasn’t easy to distinguish the sincere ones. Although, you do have some great examples of these listed above, I interpreted most of them in a different light. (Mental note that I still need to develop a sarcasm font.)

        I very much like your explanation; it would have been very nice to hear as a student. Also, as I work on developing my first courses, I might have to read through your back posts more, or ask you to post more about your grading schemes.

        And thank you, thank you for the compliment on my blog!

        • Ah, grading schemes post forthcoming!

          A sarcasm font would be marvelous. But the best satire (the Onion, Borowitz Report, Colbert Report) is done with a straight face.

      • I think this can come off in ways other than you meant it because, IME, there are other profs who use very similar wording but mean it in a vaguely snarky way, as in “Oh, I guess school is just not a priority for you.” I like your explanation. I admit that my initial reading of it was the vaguely snarky version (Twitter, with its 140-char limit, also doesn’t always help with this). Not because I think you are a snarky person about your students, but because I’m so used to profs talking on the Internet being snarky about their students.

        The snarky version of this is of a piece with some other things I see/hear some profs say when talking about their students (not necessarily in my own program) that are seemingly-neutral wording with a meaning that seems designed to make the student angry and frustrated (while the prof feels self-righteous). A common one of this genre (with a lot of wording variations), that I really hope I will never slip into using myself, is “I didn’t give you a grade, you gave yourself a grade, and I merely recorded it.”

  2. It’s really nice to see someone who is obviously respectful toward his students (and who understands the power differential).

    I struggled a lot academically as an undergrad for multiple reasons (undiagnosed chronic medical conditions, family stress, not really having learned to study effectively pre-college). It’s part of why I spent five years working full-time and (for the last three of those years) earning an MS part-time between my bachelor’s and my PhD – I couldn’t have gotten into grad school straight out of undergrad with my grades. I have completely lost my temper, before, at grad student TAs, who have never struggled academically, who mock their struggling undergrads, or assume that their problems are character flaws, or dismiss their worries about how their futures will be affected by their grades, behind their backs. I simmer when profs do it. I hope that my experiences (without which I probably would have been no better than said TAs and profs about this) will at least have been a long-term empathy-building exercise.

  3. Terry,

    One thing that I’m finding really interesting is seeing how blogging and tweeting can lead to misunderstandings. It is so easy to read sarcasm into 140 characters, for example. Thanks for being open and honest and jumping into the conversation. I’ve been thinking about blogging for awhile and watching you build this blog from the start has been interesting and informative. As an nontenured (and non-permanent) faculty member, it is great to learn from the side-lines for a bit before jumping in. Now it is just a question of whether I can find the time to do all the things I want to…

Leave a Reply