A student from another university is planning on taking a class I'll be teaching this fall and will be doing it as a transient student. Apparently, in order to have their transient status approved, they need a copy of the course syllabus, and so requested it from me by email.

I don't normally finalize my syllabi until a few days before classes start — certainly not five months in advance —, and the course itself is not one that is identical each semester so I don't feel comfortable just sending an old syllabus. (And even that wouldn't exist if it were a new class or a special topics class)

It seems odd to need the syllabi so early — AFAIK the normal process is for his home institution to review the syllabi after taking the classes to determine credit given.

So two parter:

  1. Is this a normal request that somehow has just never come by me before?
  2. If it is, how do you handle for courses that don't have syllabus ready to go?
  • In the other direction, I've had former students ask for a copy of the syllabus maybe 2 years after they took a course with me (likewise for some transfer/application process). I felt comfortable sending the current syllabus as an approximation, even though some changes had been made in the intervening time. – Daniel R. Collins Mar 26 '16 at 22:24
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    One possibility would be to look up the curriculum paperwork on file for this course, and send that instead. – user1482 Mar 27 '16 at 0:29
  1. It's not so unusual in the U.S., for example when the student is coming from abroad, with their own funding, for one semester or so. I've had to do this a handful of times in 30+ years.

  2. I approximate a syllabus, and in a cover-note say that it is approximate. There's no real loss in doing some part of that work months in advance, hopefully.

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  • So our answers are compatible but you have more experience. I believe it... – Pete L. Clark Mar 26 '16 at 20:09
  • In this case, the student is coming from a stateside school. One would think the course catalog entries should be enough. – user0721090601 Mar 26 '16 at 20:16
  • I guess I should have said not "had to", but "chose to... do this". In all cases, it had to do with relatively advanced (not first-year, nor standard second-year) graduate-level coursework, or equivalent (not always grad-level for the best "undergrad" students in the elite-est places in the world). As such, it seemed an opportunity to do some good PR work, to try to make the point that "we do substantial stuff here"... in contrast to the course catalog, which has word limits and was composed by committees. In other scenarios, surely just copying the course catalog would suffice. – paul garrett Mar 26 '16 at 21:35

Is this a normal request that somehow has just never come by me before?

I've never heard of such a request either, and I've being writing syllabi at American universities for a good while now. So...not too normal, anyway.

If it is, how do you handle for courses that don't have syllabus ready to go?

In my local academic culture, a course syllabus is a good faith effort to inform students of key course procedures and requirements. It does not absolutely bind the instructor to do what the syllabus says; I would say only that an instructor has an ethical requirement to make changes in the course syllabus for good reasons. In fact, at my university it is a standard practice to include the following sentence in course syllabi:

The course syllabus is a general plan for the course; deviations announced to the class by the instructor may be necessary.

Thus I would say that the most helpful thing you could do would be to make a tentative syllabus for the course, which includes language at least as strong as the above. You should be clear to the student that this syllabus need not be the same as the one you'll give out on the first day of class. However, if the student needs a syllabus in order to take the class (no, not a practice I recognize, but there is a lot of academic bureaucracy out there), this seems to be the best way to accommodate the request.

By the way, I think you are certainly within your rights to say, "Course syllabi are simply not available five months in advance. Based on the conditions you mention, it seems that you will not be able to enroll in the course." That is, you are certainly not obligated to hack together a tentative or pseudo-syllabus in order to accommodate someone else's bureaucratic requirement. Whether it is worth your time to do so is really up to you.

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    I see what you're saying about this being an unnecessary burden on the professor. On the other hand, it's the student who stands to lose much and needs insurance. Imagine the case where the student's year abroad is deemed academically unsatisfactory after the fact (based on syllabi not grades), and so no credit is earned at the home institution. That's a devastating blow to the student's career. From this perspective I actually wonder how new exchange programs ever start in cases where no one pre-verifies the syllabus. – user4512 Mar 26 '16 at 21:22
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    @Chris: I guess I would prefer the terminology "optional burden" over "unnecessary burden." If writing a short document a few months early is the difference between a student's year abroad happening or not happening, one would like to think the instructor would be willing to play along. There is, of course, a lot of room between what we could (and perhaps should) do and what we are obligated to do. – Pete L. Clark Mar 26 '16 at 21:41

When I was a graduate student representative, we tried to get the faculty in our department to publish something course descriptions, including very rough syllabi, for a year or two in advance, with the understanding they are not necessarily committing to actually giving those courses.

This was intended to help people plan which courses they intend to take - as with undergraduate courses you could know with relative certainty which courses would be given about when - but also because some Professors knew for certain they were going to teach a course on some subject but nobody would publish that information anywhere so you had to guess.

So, regardless of whether it's a common thing to ask, it's certainly a reasonable request - and the student obviously realizes that syllabi given far in advance are subject to change. Of course, as @PeteLClark suggest it's better to make that explicit.

PS - The dean and department management promised to do this, but never actually lifted a finger to get the faculty to submit such prospective plans.

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  1. Normal? Yes. Common? No, but it is becoming more frequent. At the two-year college where I am employed, students are being required to develop a study plan for their semesters before transfer. If a student wishes to substitute a course, or needs to repeat a course (ugh) and we don't have it at a time that suits their plan, then they need to find the course at some other institution. That substituted course needs to be approved. If we do not have an articulation agreement with the other institution, then the syllabus is a part of the process.

  2. Excellent answer: "I approximate a syllabus, and in a cover-note say that it is approximate. There's no real loss in doing some part of that work months in advance, hopefully."

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