Reading the Syllabus

If you are a professor or a grader, you're probably reading this and saying, "Yes!!! I hope all my students read this."

If you are a student, you are probably thinking: (A) "this really doesn't matter," (B) "no one would ever do this," or (C) "is he talking about me?"

If you are in group A, you should be in group C. If you are in group B, you are totally wrong. If you are in group C, then you should rightly be embarrassed. Fortunately, there is hope for you if you recognize your faults and turn away from them.

Professors are required to create syllabi. (Or is it syllabuses?) They are designed to record what the class did so we can look back at it and also to tell the students what they should be doing over the semester.

The main content of a syllabus is the information students need to know to get through a class. It is the way higher education has developed to pierce the veil of mystery and provide help to the students who have elected to pursue further study.

Sort of like a Facebook post or a mass e-mail, a syllabus is a way to tell everyone the same thing at the same time in the same way.

To rehash that last point: syllabuses tell EVERYONE the information they need to get through the course AT THE SAME TIME. 

The whole point of a syllabus is to avoid answering everyone's questions individually, whether in person or via e-mail.

An Illustration of the Problem

Imagine carefully drafting an e-mail to invite 40 of your closest friends to a party. This is like a syllabus.

Now imagine 25 of those individuals calling to ask you questions that were clearly explained in the e-mail. "What time does it start?" "What should we wear?" "Can I get directions to your house?"

Assuming the necessary information was actually in the e-mail when it was sent, by about the fifth phone call you would be ready to spear someone through the heart.

Next imagine you held three parties every six month, and repeated this year in and year out for two decades. There is a level of quiet frustration that would builds over years of the repeated, minor aggravations.

To be fair, there is the possibility the professor something left something out. For instance, in your invitation writing, the first year you might not include your address. Woops! But every year after that you would include your address and maybe a link to the Google Map for it. Likely the error would not exist for long if you repeated the process several times.

And yet if your friends are anything like students as a whole, you would continue to have friends calling you for information that is clearly explained in the invitation.

You would stop holding parties after a few years. Or, you might stop answering e-mails requesting answers to the obvious.

For professors, they continually get new students who continue to not read the syllabus. They have to keep teaching so they can eat. Unfortunately, they are trapped in a cycle of ignorance not of their own choosing.

It's not just the Facts, Ma'am.

Sometimes student questions are not explicitly in the syllabus, but that's often because they don't belong there. Not because the information wouldn't be somehow useful, but because the information is (a) easily obtainable or (b) self-evident.

For example, on the first day of a graduate philosophy class, one of my fellow students raised his hand and asked, "Where do I get the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy?" (This was spoken in Hillbonics, but I have translated it here for you and taken out the intense bib overall accent.)

You see, the professor had referenced some peer reviewed articles in the syllabus that we would read in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. He did not give the website because, well, it seems self-evident that the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy is on the internet. Google is a free service, my friends. Foolishness like this has happened more than once.

Despite these warnings, some questions are good questions. For example: "Having consulted my syllabus, I would like to compliment you on your thoroughness." (For some discussion on student questions, see my earlier post here.)

In reality, there are some questions that need to be asked. If you need to ask, do so. But first have the common courtesy to check out the syllabus to save the professor some aggravation. Besides, it makes you look smarter.

Final Thoughts

I have rarely meet anyone who teaches in Higher Ed who did not get into the business because they enjoyed helping people learn. Even the nerdy, super-introverted Engineering professors I had honestly cared about students. (See what I did there?)

However, make it easy on your professors by being a good student. Good students read the syllabus, are considerate of others, and are diligent with their opportunities. This doesn't mean you will get an 'A', but may mean you are remembered positively. 

It also may make your professor's day.

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

"Piled Higher and Deeper" by Jorge Cham

On Student Questions

Don’t be that student at seminary (or any other institution of higher learning).

Yes, I’m talking about that one.

Every class has that student who wants to teach the professor and the whole class something.

It goes like this: The student read this book. Or, maybe he’s read several books on a topic. Or, perhaps her pastor taught a series of sermons on a particular topic with a particular slant.

None of these qualifies this individual as an expert. Remember this, lest you become “that student.” The reason students are students is because they do not have the knowledge or expertise that the professor has.

This seems like a simple idea that would be clear to everyone, but educators themselves have allowed "that student" to continue to exist, in part, because they are too soft on ignorance.

Are there bad questions?

There is an adage among educators that “the only bad question is the question you don’t ask.”

This isn’t entirely true. First, there was the time when a student raised his hand to ask where we could get the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. I realize this was the first day of class, but that was an insanely stupid question. The professor did a remarkable job in responding graciously. Nevertheless the question was both asked and bad.

The second kind of bad question is the non-interrogative question. This can take two different forms. Sometimes these “questions” can be phrased as comments that are long and rambling, after which the speaker adds, “What do you think?” That is, if they bother to make it a true question at all. These are usually designed more to demonstrate the questioners brilliance or to teach the audience something.

Another form often taken by the non-interrogative question is the “bear trap question.” These are used when a student has a nugget of information––usually trivia––that they want to surprise everyone (particularly the professor) with. These questions are usually tossed out in ways that, whether intended or not, break up the flow of the lecture or discussion. More often than not, they end up making “that student” look foolish to everyone else, though wise in her own eyes. Fortunately for “that student” Scripture is silent on this topic. Or not.

The reality that seems to escape the understanding of “that student” and his inbred cousins is that no one in the room is paying to hear him speak. 

No One Paid for Student Commentary

Everyone that has paid tuition to sit in a class is expecting to gain insight information from a highly qualified professional, usually a Doctor, who has invested countless hours reading, researching, discussing, teaching, are writing about the topic under consideration.

This means that the fact that “that student” has read a recent book is extremely unlikely to shatter the foundations of the professor’s worldview.

In reality, since I’ve been hanging around the academic community for a while, I’ve realized that most new books just rehash old books. Therefore, in the unlikely event that I’ve actually read some new book my professor has not read, he or she has likely encountered the thesis of that book in a dozen books previously.

The democratization of education has led to the feeling that everyone has an opinion that counts. Wikipedia, blogs (like this one!), and growing ease of self-publishing (particularly e-publishing) lend credibility to quackery and foolishness. They also increase the popular misconception that one can make a contribution to any field of interest nearly instantaneously merely once one has done a little research.

If you think this, you are wrong. Feel free to do your research, but please hold all comments and pseudo-questions until the end. This is part of stewardship of the education of you and those in the class with you.

Far from being a mere rant by a student about his peers. I am actually hopeful that this discussion might change lives. Perhaps even yours, dear reader. With that in mind, I’ve included this helpful flowchart for when and how to ask questions. This did not originate with me, but it is so important that it bears sharing across the world and among all generations.

The moral of the story is not, “Don’t talk in class.” Instead, we should demonstrate neighbor love through our class participation. Only ask questions that will contribute to everyone’s understanding. And NEVER ask questions to show how smart you are. Most likely if you do, you’ll only end up looking dumber anyway.

Link photo courtesy of Sean Dreilinger. Used under a creative commons license in an unmodified state. The source of the photo is: 

Three Vital Relationships for Every Seminarian

It’s the beginning of another seminary semester. Several hundred new students have enrolled in classes that have started this week and the education of another batch of pastors, missionaries, teachers, and other faithful servants of Christ has begun.

This is always an exciting time on campus. The energy level that the students bring to campus can be sensed as we sing together in chapel, see people in the library, and interact on the walkways.

At the same time, when new members are introduced into a community, there are always periods of adjustment as the new faces (and sometimes the returning ones) try to figure out how to relate to people around them. What does it look like to be a seminary student?

I think there are (at least) three categories that need to be discussed along these lines for beginning students. There are three basic, and new, relationships that an incoming seminary student needs to develop.

What about my relationship with God?

Even though students that come to seminary do so for the purpose of gaining skills and knowledge that are helpful for serving God, one of the first things that gets neglected in the hustle of seminary life is often the vertical relationship with God.

Seminary takes years to complete. It often requires students with families to work full-time and take classes on the side. Or, it requires them to take classes full-time with a part-time job. In addition to that, there are ministry opportunities, the needs of family, and general life situations that pile up.

It is easy for a seminary student to neglect his or her first love--the Triune God.
Therefore, the first advice every seminary student needs to hear every semester is to be a good disciple first and foremost. Everything else must fit into place around that.

Churches need pastors who are personally holy more than professionally competent. Education in languages, biblical studies, theology, and history fill in some of the professional competence. Seminary cannot, however, make a student holier.

Students need to make growing in their relationship with Christ the first priority. Don’t let devotional Bible reading, Scripture memory, and Christian fellowship slip because you have a paper due.

What about my relationship with students?

Seminary can be a time of growth, personally, spiritually, and intellectually.

For many new seminarians, this is the first time they have had real contact with someone who doesn’t share some of the same doctrinal convictions as others. Here at Southeastern we are mostly Baptist, but there are numerous places where there is diversity amongst the faculty and students with regard to interpretation of biblical passages.

Beyond core support for central tenets of orthodoxy and certain aspects of Baptist identity, Southeastern has latitude for faculty and students to nuance a variety of doctrines. Hence, in our classrooms and meetings, there will be five point Calvinists sitting next to three pointers, with a few classical Arminians thrown into the mix. There will be dispensationalist pre-millenials sitting next to amillenial believers engaging in learning God's word.

This is a healthy mix as long as students from any theological persuasion keep a few things in mind.

1.    Outside of basic beliefs central to orthodoxy, there should be room for gracious discussion on topics. Just because “you’ve always heard” does not mean it was ever correct. Students come to seminary to learn something, not just to be reinforced in their existing beliefs in every case. This means that conversations need to be gracious and seasoned with salt.

2.    Other students are people, too. Even the foaming at the mouth egalitarian deserves respect as a person made in the image of God. You will have more success convincing them of your position if you listen and then dialogue rather than blasting their character for believing differently than you. Additionally, it is possible they (like you) haven’t figured everything out and some of the course reading will help to shape their understanding as the program goes on.

3.    Other students paid to hear the professor, not you. While your opinion may be significant to you and your immediate circle of friends, you are a student. This means that class time is not the opportunity for you to lecture your fellow students (or the professor) on the book you happened to have read or the sermon series your pastor preached once upon a time. Respect other people’s time and financial investment during class. Grind your axe in the hallway after class.

What about my relationship with professors?

This is one of the more important aspects of your time at seminary and it can impact how successful you are.

The professors at Southeastern, and most others, are godly men and women who have invested years of their lives in getting terminal degrees and ministering to the body of Christ. They didn’t get into teaching for the money. They want to help equip students to serve the church and fulfill the Great Commission.

Part of equipping you is teaching you how to deal respectfully with people, whether in person or in electronic communication.

Your professors are not your best friends. Even though your English profs at your liberal arts school may have allowed you to call them by their first name in class, this should not be an assumed privilege for seminary professors. Once you graduate and move to a church, there will be people you need to treat with professional respect and formality.

Calling someone by their appropriate title (Dr., Mrs., Mr., etc.) does not mean that they are a more valuable person than you. It does, however, demonstrate respect for their position. It also helps establish a healthy learning environment which, while cooperative, recognizes the expertise of the individual leading the class.

Additionally, although many of your professors actually exist outside of the classroom and may have an informal relationship with you at church or on social media, this does not collapse the professionalism required in the classroom. There is room for banter, but allow your professors to be professional in the classroom.

Although social media lends itself to banter and fun in the electronic world, Direct Messages and Facebook comments are not the place to ask about your assignments (which are detailed in the syllabus) or why you got a ‘D’ on the paper you wrote so poorly.

Professionalism in the classroom makes everyone’s life a little better.

Are there things I’ve missed? Write your suggestions below.