Schuman isn’t wrong. The longer syllabi get, the lower the chances that students will read them; thus by making our syllabi so broad-ranging and explicit we are defeating our own aims. However, in my experience it’s beneficial to have policies in writing: the presence of policies in writing promotes consistent enforcement and defuses the aggrieved sense that that enforcement is personal.
And yet a syllabus, no matter how detailed, cannot possibly cover everything. The idea that it can is damaging to expectations. Schuman writes that “what you need is to learn and learn well, and if you already knew what you needed to know, you wouldn’t be in the class in the first place.” Learning requires vulnerability, as I alluded to the other day. It demands risk-taking. College is supposed to be an environment that requires you to take intellectual risks in the service of becoming an independent thinker/citizen/human being. That’s what Huber reminds us of: “Some of you will lose this piece of paper because you’ve had other people to smooth out your papers and empty your backpack for as long as you can remember, but that all ends here. There’s no one to empty your backpack. That’s why college is great and scary.”
To try to synthesize these two great pieces of writing, I’ll say this: we put the policies on the syllabus so that we can all (professors, students, administrators) stop worrying about them. Policies are there to catch you when you fall and need either to be rescued or to be corrected. Read them, learn them, know them, follow them, because if you’re not sure how to go about being a successful risk-taking learner, the syllabus will teach you the basics. Notice, though, too, what the syllabus NEVER says: “Students who ask dumb questions will be ridiculed.” (Because they won’t.) “Students who offer ideas that turn out to be incorrect will be shunned.” (Because it isn’t true.) “Students who do everything correctly will nonetheless be robbed of a good grade through mysterious forces beyond their control.” (Not on my watch.)