Close Reading a Syllabus

How many of you spend the first day of class “reviewing” a syllabus? How many times do you then get students asking questions that can easily be answered by reading the syllabus? I got so tired of this routine that several years ago I instituted a quiz on the syllabus for every course, worth 2-5 percent of the final grade. These were “open book” quizzes, so students had no excuse for not knowing the correct answers.

These quizzes were the only way that I could get students to devote some attention to the syllabus. I changed jobs and dropped the practice because it didn’t seem necessary with the new and different student population. Now I’m teaching first-year students again, and I’m seeing the same old problem.

As my jaw began to clench at the thought of making a syllabus quiz worth five percent of the final grade, it occurred to me that I could instead use the syllabus for a close reading exercise. Close reading is the examination of a text’s meaning given its linguistic, semantic, structural, and cultural content. Linguistic content refers to vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and other stylistic choices of the author. Semantic content is the denotative and connotative meaning of the words. Structural content is the relationships between words in the text, from both linguistic and structural perspectives.  Analyzing cultural content requires that the reader infer relationships between the text and concepts that are not explicitly contained within it.

A close reading exercise on a syllabus prods students to answer questions like:

  • given the way the syllabus is organized, what does the instructor think is important about the course?
  • is what the instructor thinks is important also important to me?
  • what do I need to do to achieve my goals for this course?

Close reading is a skill that most academics learn unconsciously. Using the syllabus to introduce students to this skill might be productive for them and the instructor.

7 Replies to “Close Reading a Syllabus”

  1. I like both of these ideas. Have you done the close read exercise yet? I would be interested in hearing the results.

  2. Haven’t done it yet; it will be part of a grand experiment in a spring semester course.

  3. I really appreciate your thoughts on close reading a syllabus. I’m curious – two years later, did you ever try it? How did it work? Are there more questions that you asked in class? I’m considering this approach with my freshman seminar this semester. They are largely unfamiliar with the concept of a syllabus and I thought this might be a way for them to really stop and think about what kinds of information a syllabus can provide.

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      This exercise kind of fell by the wayside — I did not do it in the in-depth way that I had planned. I’ve volunteered to be a mentor to first-generation college students beginning in the fall semester, which is when I’ll also be teaching a course composed primarily of first year students, so I really need to implement this.

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