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.