De-coding your Syllabus: Practical Tips for the Beginning of the Semester

Welcome back to Duke Divinity School! We know the first days of a new semester are always hectic — and on top of it all, professors keep handing you 18-page documents full of dates and bibliography entries and bullet points! A syllabus can be complicated and intimidating, even for people who have been in academia for years, so please know it is NOT just you.

Don’t panic. Do this instead.

Sit down with a hard copy of the syllabus, a highlighter, and your personal calendar. (And a cookie.) 

Everything in this syllabus is important. But let’s grab the REALLY important stuff first.

REQUIRED TEXTS: These usually show up early in the syllabus. You MUST have these books OR know exactly how you can access them. HINT: if a reading says “SAKAI” next to it, the professor has posted it to your course’s Sakai site. If a reading doesn’t have this notation, YOU are responsible for making sure you have access to the reading, whether by purchasing the book or finding it in the library. Professors send their book lists to the library before each semester so that students can have access to them for three hours at a time—this is when a book is on “Reserve” at the library. The library also collects “e-reserves”, or electronic copies of required textbooks, that you can access online and read from home or from your favorite Durham coffee shop. Give it some thought: choose which books you want to invest in buying and which books you can check out at the library and scan chapters to send to yourself.

ASSIGNMENTS – LIST: Open the syllabus to find the calendar of assignments. Sometimes you have to dig a few pages to find it. And it may be under a few different categories, but often it will be under something akin to “Assignments and Policies.” You are looking for assignments and DATES. This section is the most important thing in the entire document.  Read it closely, TWICE, and immediately write or enter all of the assignments into your calendar on the days they are due. Midterm exam? In-class presentation? Final paper? Final paper due the same week as all your other final papers for all your other classes? Don’t let any of these dates sneak up on you! GET THEM ON THE CALENDAR. Start to make a plan for the hard weeks in the semester now. Do you know who’s great at helping make a plan for the hard weeks in the semester? Judith Heyhoe, director of the Writing Center and Academic Support! Email her at jheyhoe@div.duke.edu — she will be very happy to help you look at your schedule.

ASSIGNMENTS – DETAILS: Knowing you have a paper due in the first week of March and getting it on your calendar is a great first step. But as soon as you get it on the calendar, your whole brain is going to go, “Great! Let’s not worry about this until March 1.” HOLD THAT THOUGHT. Flip through the rest of the syllabus and see if you can find a section that gives more detail on the expectations for each assignment. Flag this section with a Post-it note that will stick out the side of your syllabus so you can find it easily again when you start worrying about an assignment in earnest. But do yourself a favor and read it now, and think about how you can prepare: does the assignment ask you to review a book that’s not on the assigned readings list? Do some summary and analysis of the course readings up to this point in the semester? Make a plan for how you’re going to get that work done before the night before your assignment is due.

RHYTHM OF A WEEK: What does a normal week in this class look like? Find the CALENDAR OF ASSIGNED READINGS. Slowly skim through the first couple of weeks. About how many pages are you being asked to read to prepare for class? Do you need to write a summary of the readings, post a discussion question for Sakai, email your preceptor a reflection paragraph, or prepare some other response to each week’s readings? Figure out exactly how much work this class is going to be, and figure out when you’re going to do it. Reading is slow work! Try to find spaces in your schedule where you know you can read without being stressed about rushing off to your next thing.

ACRONYMS AND ABBREVIATIONS: Okay, admit it: you skipped ahead to see what you need to read for next week, and you saw “CCOT” and some numbers and got confused. Slow down! Go back and look through the different required texts and see if any of them have an acronym next to them. Often these books have long, complicated titles — and in the assignments sections, a professor will only refer to the book by its author’s last name, or by an acronym. So for the Cambridge Companion to the Old Testament, a professor might call it CCOT — aha!

OTHER AWFUL WORDS: Monograph… Peer-reviewed article… Chicago/Turabian style footnotes… Highlight ANY word you aren’t sure about and either look it up or ask your friendly librarians. Sometimes in a syllabus, professors will speak in the ways in which they are used to speaking and reading, which often includes jargon that is unfamiliar to people who haven’t spent the last decade (or more) immersed in the academy. And, if you feel overwhelmed from the start of the semester because you don’t understand the syllabus, that can be a difficult start to the class. We want you to feel empowered!

PARTING THOUGHTS: If there is ANYTHING you do not understand in a syllabus, make an appointment with either Dr. Katie Benjamin or Lacey Hudspeth on Sakai or email them at katie.benjamin@duke.edu or lacey.hudspeth@duke.edu. Librarians are here to help make your lives easier and to aid in your academic success in any ways that we can! 

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