Syllabi are a crucial dimension of the success of any college course. As a technical document presented to students at the beginning of a course, the syllabus crucially frames course expectations and shapes decision-making as well as student-teacher negotiations throughout the semester. As Thompson (2007, p. 55-56) argues, syllabi serve multiple purposes, some of which are informative, identitarian and contractual with significant rhetorical implications. To understand the role of syllabi in any course, we must consider how the syllabus, like any other technical document, is shaped by a “rhetorical situation” (see Bitzer, 1992), which in the case of teaching include factors relating to teaching environments, course delivery and temporal modality. Using examples relating to class procedures, assignment design, assessment design and learning activities, I explore the differences in the rhetoric of selected syllabi in Rhetoric and Composition, Technical and Professional Communication and Public Speaking courses, highlighting how their presentational differences respond to the nature of varied course formats, [likely] impact students’ learning and is informed by the first principle of Online Literacy Instruction (OLI).
The analysis suggests that class procedures and policies is one section where the impact of the teaching environment, delivery format and temporal modality becomes glaring. The syllabi examined for this analysis are for either face to face or online courses. None is a hybrid course. Thus, one notices some sharp differences between the face to face syllabi and the online courses as far as this section is concerned. Online syllabi would generally have information on the format of textbooks, an explicit discussion of possible technological problems, information on online attendance, processes for submitting online assignments and in some cases, netiquette. While all of the syllabi for the online courses indicate that the class takes place online, it was actually only in one case that the syllabi references the temporal modality of the course with explanation of the implication of this for attendance policy. Interestingly, this syllabus responds directly to the Covid-19 pandemic. The syllabi indicate that as a result of the conditions propelled by the Coronavirus pandemic, classes are supposed to be held asynchronously. While some room is left for instructors to have synchronous meetings, students are not to be penalized for not partaking in such a format. This accommodation highlights the important role of institutions in ensuring that all students have access to online classes while pointing to how other factors, like a global health crisis, could impact the decisions and procedures of an online class.
Analysis of the corpus suggests that traditional classes are highly technologized these days and that assignment submissions and discussions could be held on course management systems; however, in the case of the face to face syllabi, there is never an explicit indication that students need to engage with possible technological problems–a situation that seem to imply that technology is optional in the face to face classroom. These issues are, however, directly addressed in the online syllabi. For instance, in one case, the instructor indicates that: “This course requires that you work with other classmates online through a variety of word processing, design and presentation software tools. Joining the class means you will have access to reliable internet source and a computer. Some basic technology requirements for this course are… [provides list of technology needed, many of which are used in my own face to face classes]” While aspects of the face to face classes, e.g., reading discussions, occur on the course management system, there is no reference in these syllabi to the significance of technological access. However, in online courses, this information is provided explicitly as in the following instance: “Because this is an online class, participation online is mandatory”. This seems to suggest that while current traditional education might have an online component, technological access is not constructed as mandatory.
Information that is often taken for granted in face to face instruction are explicitly presented in the online syllabi. For instance, the face to face syllabi examined do not provide information on where assignments must be submitted although one could infer that this happens on the course management; however, this is not the case for the online course. Online syllabi provide explicit information on assignment submission and in one case, for instance, students are clearly told they cannot email the professor their assignment.
In terms of assignment design, assessment design and learning activities, asynchronous classes tended to have more discussions as learning was generally hinged on students’ responses to the reading assignments for the day. In fact, many of the asynchronous syllabi examined had reading responses for every week. While synchronous and face to face classes had discussions as part of the assessment, often these discussions were limited (an average of four for these syllabi), which makes sense considering that a major part of the class happened in real time where certain topics could be discussed. Thus, while online discussion seems to be an assessment tool for all classes, they seem to take on different roles in synchronous, asynchronous and face to face classes. There was a clear indication that the various assignments are scaffolded around topics and this was true whether the syllabi were for face to face and online classes. Perhaps, this has to do with the current emphasis on process in rhetoric and composition pedagogy. There were little differences in the presentation of assignment description for both online and traditional courses and in one case where an online version of the same course was compared to its face to face version, there were no differences in terms of assessment design and description, highlighting the fact that the face to face component had been transposed directly into the online version. It is not clear what the assignment sheet themselves might indicate but there is something to be said about whether instructors are considering how the specific context of teaching and learning inform assignments.
In some of the syllabi, it is not clear whether there is going to be other ways to explain the relevance of what students are reading beyond discussion assignments. Harris et. al. (2019) have examined the approach as a problem in online literacy education arguing for what they call “purposeful pedagogy-driven” approach to building OLI courses. Chunks of an assignment are carefully broken down in some asynchronous syllabi. However, in some syllabi, students seem to be submitting assignments in the same weeks that readings are due, creating a sense that students may not have enough time to practice the skills needed for the completion of the assignments. With no explicit explanation of how other strategies could support students’ discussion, the syllabi make it appear that students would have to figure out a way to understand the content, a point that support Boyd’s (2008, p. 240) explanation of the need for instructors to provide “meta-commentary” on course design. Without this explicitness, the asynchronous courses examined especially appear as correspondence courses. It is unclear the strategies the instructor might use to resolve the “cognitive leaps” that, as Harris et. al. indicate, “students must make from what they read to what they write.” In one example, the first week involves activities such as course overview, work on speech assignment and watching videos. Students also read chapters from the assigned textbooks. In the second week, the speech is recorded and submitted. There is no indication of instructor feedback and/or peer review before the submission. Neither is there an explicit explanation of how certain activities prepare students to complete this assignment.
One crucial difference between syllabi for face to face classes and those for online classes is the explicit engagement with questions of access. This is not surprising considering that the first principle for Online Literacy Instruction indicates that “Online literacy instruction should be universally accessible and inclusive.” Much of the explicit engagement with questions of access are related to technology and disability, although as I would explain subsequently there is hardly any discussion on how online education complicates the experiences of learners with disability. There is a certain acknowledgement of differences in access to technology. In one example, there is a certain acknowledgement that factors such as geography and socioeconomic class may impact technological access but this is provided in a syllabus revised specifically for the pandemic. Considering that the other syllabi do not engage with this issue, one might consider the possible influence of Coronavirus-related discussions surrounding issues of educational access on this aspect of the syllabus. What seems interesting is the fact that the discussions on technological access are framed mainly as problems rather than as commitment to ensure that all students have access to the technology needed for success on the course. Students in one instance are told that computer failure cannot be used as an excuse and that they must start working on their assignment early on in order to overcome such problems. In one instance, it is indicated that not possessing a computer is not an excuse and that students could make arrangements to use the campus computer, which raises an important point about the ways in which the online class is being constructed. Why are students expected to be on campus if this is an online class?, one may ask. Interestingly, students are advised to take the face to face option if they expect to have technological problems which points to how online classes are often seen in relation to face to face classes rather than being seen as independent.
It seems to me that the instructors of online classes have to negotiate the ways in which online education complicates questions relating to access and responsibility–a point that has not necessarily been considered in discussions of access. Related to this is the absence of discussions on the central role of language in the construction of social relations in the literacy classroom. Baecker’s (2010, p. 58) discussion of the rhetoric of syllabi indicates that when it comes to literacy education, there is likely to be some sort of tension between an instructor’s theory and practice and that the syllabus is “[o]ne site of such collision.” One of such rhetorical tensions is the simultaneous need for instructors to build a “hospitable environment” and establish ethos (Thompson, p. 55). My analysis suggests that questions of access must engage discursive constructions of authority in the classroom and its tensions with the construction of student responsibility. Here, Baecker’s analysis of the central role of pronominal forms in the construction of power and authority in composition syllabi is significant but pronouns are but one discursive strategy to be considered. An emphasis of the language of syllabi is critical especially in an online situation where the social presence and phatic communication are highly impeded because of disembodiment. Thus, the rhetoric of the syllabi points to how issues pertaining to discourse impedes the holistic engagement with questions of access especially in the virtual literacy course. It is these kinds of possible tensions heightened as a result of different rhetorical contexts of teaching that online instructors must pay attention to as they construct their syllabus. This explains why an online instructor can indicate an interest in ensuring the success of all students while in the same breath indicating that students cannot use technological problems as an excuse for not completing assignments.
It seems questions of disability in online classes look the same as those in the face to face section and in fact, in at least two of the syllabi examined, there are no references to disability at all. Those syllabi that have a section on accommodation for disability do not discuss how digital classes complicate issues of disability and other ways of learning: references are made to the language of the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) and students are told to go to the disability center but there is no discussion of what accessible online pedagogical design looks like. Disability is constructed as an exception rather than as a norm and there seem to be no consideration of differences in learning styles and what accommodations would be made to ensure that materials are accessible to all. In short, the rhetoric of the syllabi inadvertently privilege ableism and students are made responsible for dealing with questions of disability, an issue that has extensively been discussed in Oswal (2015).
In conclusion, the discussion shows that different instructional contexts significantly impact the construction of syllabi and this is evident in the differences in the rhetorics of traditional and online syllabi. However, in the case of online syllabi especially, extra steps need to be taken to ensure that learning is accessible to all. For rhetoric and composition scholars, this is an opportunity to practice what we teach our students in the classroom: that is the essence of context or situation in the communicative practice. This means that we must move beyond questions of technology (which remain crucial obviously for online education) and to consider a holistic approach to the classroom as a rhetorical situation that should inform our construction of the documents that govern practices in our classroom. This too is teaching!
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