Read the syllabus
One of the great cliches in higher education is "Read the syllabus". There have been impassioned articles about it. Bundles of tips shared about it. Twitter handles registered with the phrase. Even a Cameo by Snoop Dogg imploring students to "Read the syllabus".
■ It seems that more often than not, professors and instructors want students to read the syllabus because it contains details on mechanical issues -- like when to come for office hours, how to communicate with the teacher, and how grades will be assigned. And those mechanical matters are certainly important. But for those who haven't realized it yet, we have moved into a new economic era: The Teach-Yourself Economy. And the syllabus, properly constructed, is more valuable than ever before.
■ Data is abundant. Information can be found everywhere. And there are lots of people with vested interests in "teaching" others online -- often for direct or indirect profit. Search for the words "How to" on YouTube, and you'll find more video content than you could watch in a lifetime.
■ Some of this information surplus is quite nice to have. It's good to be able to learn how to do rote tasks like folding a fitted sheet. And there are even sophisticated topics addressed online, too -- like what makes a complex song appealing and why highway underpasses are deadly in a tornado.
■ But when it comes to learning a topic comprehensively, there's nothing better than a thoughtful, detailed syllabus developed by experts on the subject. That, after all, is what a collegiate syllabus ought to be. The student needs to know where to begin, where to go next, and what ultimately they need to cover before thinking they've truly learned a subject. Obviously, knowledge on most subjects remains open-ended -- we are, as a human species, continuing to learn more all the time.
■ Yet the hardest thing to know is what it is we don't know. Blind spots in our knowledge -- either collectively, or as individuals -- are incredibly hard to perceive and rectify. When people use the throwaway line "do your own research" to dismiss those with whom they disagree, what they often omit is the challenging fact that a lone individual rarely knows what it is they actually need to "research" in order to have useful knowledge.
■ The more we become dependent on teaching ourselves -- either out of necessity or simple curiosity -- the more we will find that the much-maligned syllabus is, when done right, the most important thing an instructor can offer their students.