This Syllabus is Not a Contract

It has become quite fashionable for educators and educational institutions to describe their offerings as contracts with their students. This is completely inaccurate, and misleading.

I think I know why it is happening, though. I believe there is evidence that the value of education generally, and higher education specifically, is being gradually rendered suspect by forces that would diminish any public interest, or investment, in it happening at all. As public investment decreases dramatically, public institutions are made to argue for their value in the marketplace to each other, and to the public, even as the means to deliver that value dry up. Even as within and among public institutions, we are increasingly asked to compete for what scant resources we’re afforded. “Fighting over scraps,” as a colleague describes it. If your goal were to diminish the power of an institution, reducing the resources available to the institution and leaving its constituents to compete with each other in order to get them would be a pretty effective strategy.

Which means that it is increasingly incumbent upon us, the faculty, to convince you, the student, of the value of what we do and what we teach: to affirm over and over again why we are here at all, why we are worth our salaries and our offices and (sometimes) our tenure. We go to “contract” language to make those arguments because we are compelled to convince you that what we offer is of value equal to or greater than the value you are investing to access it and participate in it: your means, your time. We especially quantify that value as skills and credentials that will enable you to become gainfully employed. Measuring gainful employment and assurances of value can certainly be important parts of making sure that an education institution is focusing on the right things and growing in the right ways. But they are not the only parts, or even the most important parts.

So when we talk about education as a transaction, and a syllabus as a contract that regulates it, we assert that you are a consumer buying something in the marketplace, and we are affirming that its value is manifest and worth the price. That’s what contracts regulate, as far as I can tell, being neither economist nor lawyer. The house I type this in was built as a result of a contract we signed with a builder. We promised to give the builder money; he promised to create a house with specific qualities in a specific timeframe. He delivered the house; we delivered the money; we went our separate ways, more or less satisfied with what we had negotiated but clear that what transpired had been more or less what was promised.

This encounter that you and I are about to embark upon is very different. One of the main reasons is that you know, to some degree, what I am “putting up” — you are about to read one way of describing it, in my syllabus — but I have no idea what you are. Putting up. I can quantify the expectation of what you SHOULD be putting up, in time you’re expected to spend preparing for class (and our institution does — read to the end), but that’s not much of a stand-in for “what you’re bringing to class,” is it. ASULearn, our content management system, can log what readings you access, when, and for how long, and it will — but it can’t say anything about what you do with those readings when they are open on your desktop.

Note the similarities between our situation and what clients, patients, and students do in relationships with caring professionals generally. Doctors, counselors, teachers, pastors, and others who care professionally have control over what they are putting out there, or trying to. They have no control over what is done with it. The physician can tell a patient to quit smoking every six months for decades, but cannot know if the patient does; the counselor can prescribe meditations and reflective writing, or the pastor daily scripture study and prayer, but have no knowledge over whether those suggestions are followed. There can be no “contract” when what one party is “putting in” is so variable, so obscured, so unknown.*

So we might say that the syllabus you are about to read isn’t a contract, because I can’t know what you’re bringing to it. I am building a house, but I don’t know how much you are willing to pay for it. Even though you have “bought” it anyway, from our institution, through your tuition payment — and you will reckon its value based on your perception of whether or not it is solid, whatever you actually “pay” for it.

And I acknowledge that this might be where the house contract metaphor breaks down, actually — because I’m not the only one building the house. We’re building it together: a core ingredient of every time I teach this course is the specific experiences and viewpoints of the students who help create it. Which is why it ends up so different, with every section, every semester. Its value is constant; its qualities are not.

Really, the whole notion of our work together being a transaction of different things of value is troublesome. But these are dominant terms we are given to understand what we’re about to do — and whatever their shortcomings, they do allow me to wonder a little about what students who gain “value” from their work here bring to it. So let me do that.

I assert that the most important quality to bring to this experience is an utter, unguarded willingness to take the readings, and the ideas they contain, on their own terms. To truly learn from them by letting them teach you.

It is a little odd that I should need to say this — because presumably we come to institutions of higher learning precisely to gain access to ideas and perspectives that we couldn’t get to in our homes or our hometowns. It costs a lot to be here; it costs a lot to maintain a separate space for learning, away from home, and to live and thrive here while we are experiencing it. Shouldn’t what we find here be strange, alienating, thrilling, terrifying? Different?

But many times students are frightened or otherwise off-put when a curriculum gives them something different from what they can get at home. It is threatening or disorienting, as all new experiences are, until we learn how it works and are changed by it.

I want to affirm that the ideas you’ll encounter here are going to be strange, and therefore challenging. I also want to affirm that they weren’t chosen just to frighten you. They were chosen because, in my best estimation, and that of other people like me who have similarly devoted their lives to making these determinations, they are Worth Your Time.

Learning these texts deeply, taking them all the way in, will transform you in highly productive ways. One of the constants of all students everywhere is that they do not know yet which ideas are most worth examining; where they should spend their finite time and energy most profitably. I have to ask you to trust me — and if not me personally (who of course you do not know yet), then my credentials; then the trust the institution has seen fit to put in me to choose wisely what you should attend to; then the existence of a scholarly tradition at all in this field, which you will understand better and be able to participate in after our time together, if you just accord it attention and willingness to regard it on its own terms.

Sometimes the ideas and perspectives you will encounter here will directly contradict the ones you have been raised with, or the ones that you have nurtured in your own value system, which I know many of you have already been cultivating deliberately and passionately as adults for some time now. (Higher education certainly did that for me: challenged what I was already sure I knew and had faith in.)

I want to affirm that the truths you hold which are worthy of your devotion will survive this experience, and be deepened by it. I base this assertion on my own journey, as well as those of many of the hundreds of students who have gone before you in this course. This doesn’t mean that some of what you currently believe won’t be changed as a result of the work. But what is worthy of you will remain, transformed into something better and more reliable. This course does not have a mandate to change your heart, only to broaden your mind. But many have found that one has followed from the other, in ways that make faith more integrally connected to action.

The kind of willingness to learn I am describing here is mostly unobservable and unknowable to me. I cannot assess it, quantify it, or otherwise grade you on it. But I know that students who bring this willingness will usually manifest other, observable behaviors: attendance, participation, engaged and respectful attitudes toward colleagues and me, energy and respect. It does not ALWAYS look like that: some of the students whose willingness is deepest say the least in class, and there are many ways of learning that I seek to respect and nurture. But generally, I’ll know it, in the ways I need to in order to teach well.

If I don’t know how you’re engaging, I may ask you. If I see evidence that you have missed something important, I may point it out to you. I may suggest a different way for you to use your language, or draw your attention to something I think you need to attend to more. If I do that, please know that I am doing what I was brought to this institution to do; if I ever do it in a way that discomforts you, I am happy to hear and discuss that. But I also understand that some of what we need to learn is uncomfortable, and that there is no way to learn it without being put out into the cold, so to speak, until we grow into other ways to be. I will not shirk from that part of the work — though a considerable part of both of us might want to — because I want to be the best teacher that I can possibly be. You deserve no less.

So before our time together starts, please understand that we’re not signing a contract here. We are not about to have a predictable, measurable value exchange. We can’t know what each other are bringing to the table thoroughly enough to call it that. Even though things of great value are about to be put into play. Our energy and our time, yes — but also our trust, our sense of what is of most worth and what is most sacred: ourselves.

It is perhaps better to say that we’re about to embark upon a shared journey, and I’ve been asked and trusted to guide you on it the absolute best I can. You’re on the journey too, and have a responsibility to shape what we do together, where to go. I have done my best here to outline what I think that usually looks like. I may have missed or misstated something; I am still learning how best to guide such journeys, and hope to for the rest of my life.

Thank you for joining me. I will do my best to be worthy of your trust, and your investment in learning and expanding yourself. I invite you to bring all you are to this work as well, so you may be similarly improved and, perhaps, transformed.

*This is one of the reasons that efforts by hospitals and insurance companies to quantify the effectiveness of doctors in the mortality rates of their patients has been so roundly rejected by the powerful associations of physicians that speak with one voice for them. It is also one of the reasons why the similar drive to talk about teachers’ effectiveness in terms of their student’s test scores is misplaced and harmful. Though note that the change to what a teacher’s “value-added” is has been almost completely accomplished, which says much about the relative power of teacher and doctors in the world to shape the realities of their work.

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