Tuesday, February 13, 2007


So I have received a least one email, and have spoken to several students in class, to the effect that they have lost their syllabi. I just send them another one by document attachment and it's no big deal, but it wasn't until the student wrote to say "I just can't handle paper anymore," that I thought, Huh?

I have heard colleagues boast for several years about the advent of "paper-free" courses, made possible by ordinary email and things like Black Board, Web Pages, and so on. It is possible that soon the whole world will be paper-free. "Help the environment!" read my email from Citibank. "Get your statement on line." I wanted to write back, "Help the environment! Stop investing in people who rape the earth!" But I didn't, and I even had a moment of wondering whether I could reduce my three or four bags full of waste paper that the recycling folk pick up every week by going "paper free" with my other services. Not until the history search is over, I think, but maybe. And I won't pretend I'm helping the earth, since the only reason I can go "paper-free" is because of a computer that -- if it is ever disposed of -- will probably put fierce chemical shit into the environment.

I don't know what it means that students may be losing the skill of "dealing with paper" but I do know that I never, ever lost a syllabus in college or graduate school, and if I had it would have been part of a larger disaster, like leaving my whole binder on the bus. Have whole rituals disappeared, like buying those little stickies that you put over the punch holes so your syllabus doesn't rip out of the rings? Or do my students just stuff everything in those bottomless backpacks that nothing ever emerges from but a water bottle and a cell phone? Before we went "paper free" on drop add (really a good thing, since I discovered about ten years into my career at Zenith that if you refused to sign off on a schedule change for a student, many students were simply likely to sign your name for you) I remember being presented with a three-layer form that became increasingly ripped, disheveled and stained before being turned in to the Registrar -- who, I presume, sterilized them in a microwave before she allowed her staff to process them. But sometimes those forms would return to the backpack, probably eventually working their way to the bottom where they formed a moist layer of compost, never to emerge again. In April, students would show up with petition forms to drop a class they had -- well, intended to drop.

Is "learning to handle paper" a life skill -- like, say, spelling, that you can get computers to do for you but is also wise to learn in case you ever need to write out a Valentine's message by hand? Should we be teaching it as one of those things you append to a class description, along with "citizenship," "speaking," and "engaging cultural difference?" Does it require a support center, like the Writing Center or Math Workshop? Or is this just another little bit of trivial annoyance to add to the life of professors: that from time to time we will be asked to produce another copy of the syllabus -- hopefully not too many weeks after it has been lost in the first place.


The Combat Philosopher said...

You are funny and on the money, as ever. I have standard web pages for each of my classes. It is a good trick to make them generic, so that they do not need to be changed from year to year, or semester to semester. One link on each page is a link to the syllabus in .pdf form. I just up date new versions each time I teach a class. This is a simple job. Students who cannot find their paper copy can just go there -- no need to send attachments!

I prefer to use .pdf files, as I had a case a while ago of an individual who made some 'creative edits' on the word-proceesing system version and then tried to complain about stuff.

BTW, the 'paper free' thing is actually something of a myth. Ages ago (I forget when and I forget where), I saw a study that showed that computers actually increased paper usage, rather then reduced it. Although most things live on my trusty laptop, it is still often necessary to print stuff out for a variety of reasons. So, if you end up only partly paper free, do not be surprised.

The one thing that I have found that works quite well is the paperless syllabus. One of my classes runs entirely from a web page. The home page is the syllabus. As most of the readings are available on-line, the page also functions as a text book. Students seem to love this. The good ones print stuff out and store them in creative binders. It saves them a bunch, not having to buy at text.

The CP

Horace said...

I still have many of my syllabi from grad school, and one or two from great undergrad classes. If students can't keep an important document for 15 weeks, wait 'til they get an IRS audit...harrumph.

But, as CP says, the online syllabus is a marvel, once you put the effort into marking it up. If only I'd ever get my own butt in gear to do precisely that...

Lesboprof said...

You know, I have to admit that I am SO that person who loses the syllabus. I got disenrolled every damn semester of grad school, because I could not do what was needed. It took years to get to a place that I could actually hold on to something like that.

Now, I am a serious filer, and I have great paper files and computer files (and backups) of everything!

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