The Legal Beat
What You Can Learn from Reading A Syllabus (And Why We Hate It When You Don’t)
Posted on Tuesday January 15, 2019
If you spend a lot of time on Twitter (and who doesn’t?), then you’ll probably see at the start of every semester a few professors complaining about how students do not read the syllabus. Some undergraduate professors even assure that students read the syllabus by giving a “syllabus quiz.”
I don’t go that far, and I can’t think of a law professor who does. Instead, I insert intentional typos into my syllabus. If a student notices and points it out to me, it warms the cockles of my heart. If they point out a typo I didn’t intend, then they are met with hostility and contempt. Kidding. But the point is we really want you to read the syllabus. It reduces the number of repetitive questions we encounter. It also demonstrates you are eager to know what you’re about to learn in the course.
If you are a law student, there are good reasons to humor us in that request. You may glean some important information about a professor by what they list on the syllabus. Let’s look at some of that important information.
Assignments and Topics: While casebooks have a structure to them (if they are well-written), law professors don’t follow those structures. Professors have the course constructed in their head their own way, hopefully after much thought. The structure of the course and the assignments gives you an inside clue as to how the professor thinks about the course, what topics are important, and how those topics relate to one another.
Purpose of the Course: This is the 30,000-foot level of the course. Why does the professor think the course is important? Of course, every professor thinks their class is important, but each have a unique perspective about why. And you don’t have to take my word for it: If you look at the same course syllabus across law schools, you’ll find the topics covered are mostly the same, but the course descriptions diverge.
Final Exams and Grading: This section usually catches the student’s eye. However, I’m surprised how often it isn’t fully read. Is your grade based solely on a final? Is it based on class participation? What kind of participation? Are there other opportunities for feedback before the final, such as midterms? What kind of exam is it? All of these issues tell you how to get a grade, how to pace yourself for the course, and how to study.
Laptops: Often times the professor’s laptop policy is not only a reflection of how much the professor thinks you are screwing around on the internet, but also their view of the learning process. There are very good and scientific reasons to never allow laptops in the classroom. There are a set of professors who believe those scientific reasons related to learning outweigh student convenience. There is another set of professors who thread the needle, balancing student desires with those learning issues, allowing the students to only use laptops for note taking and educational purposes. I’m in the third category at the moment, which is I don’t feel I can police it (translation: My life’s too short to police it). And, the more students screwing around during class, the easier it is to construct a grade curve.
Okay, there’s another reason I am more lax about it: I actually think sometimes programs like “groupme” aren’t used to just talk smack about the professor. I’ve seen it used when everyone in class is confused, and then someone finally speaks up. And I can take the snark about me.
Rebel or Conformist? On every syllabus are ABA-required statements, and most likely school-required statements. Does your professor’s syllabus have that? Or is the professor a rebel, drawing fire from administrators for not having it. What does the missing information say about your professor?
Office Hours? While many professors have standard office hours, they are not always convenient for either student or professor. I know I have spent many office hours alone catching up on Twitter. Some professors have switched over to “by appointment” office hours, which not only assures a mutually agreed meeting time, but that students actually show up (or at least better show up). The downside for students is if you miss office hours, you can always go again. If you blow an appointment, your make-up appointment will be rougher.
Reading a syllabus is a great way to see what’s going to be going on in the course. I don’t just mean “skim the syllabus.” I mean read it. Carefully. Like you read cases when you were a 1L (we hope). It is the first important step in learning what you need to be successful in the course.
LawProfBlawg is an anonymous professor at a top 100 law school. You can see more of his musings here. He is way funnier on social media, he claims. Please follow him on Twitter (@lawprofblawg) or Facebook. Email him at [email protected].