How to deal with Syllabi Anxiety

We all know that the first day of a new class can be the most anxious time at the start of the semester. You come into the class not knowing what to expect from the professor, other students, or the class itself. Through all of our combined graduate courses, we have seen that professors handle the syllabus and first day of class in a wide variety of ways.  These can range from first day scare tactics to underwhelming syllabi, to no syllabus at all. This week we share our experiences with all of these scenarios and how to handle the stress of the first day.

Dragana: The first week of a new semester can be a very exciting time—new classes, new professors, and even new friends. I think that my fellow contributors would agree with me that getting the syllabus for each class can both be very comforting and stressful at the same time. For me, personally, I find syllabi useful in terms of laying out what will be done week by week, but it also overwhelms me. Looking at the syllabus and seeing six readings for one class, a chapter in another, and six more readings for my last class—I don’t know where to start. Besides readings, assignments can start to pile up around the same time too. Looking at the syllabus and seeing the amount of work to be done can create a feeling of anxiety. While I still struggle with that, I have found that by not looking at the syllabus as a whole, but rather on a week by week basis and planning according to that helps alleviate some of the anxiety. Try looking at each class individually. Plan out on what days you will do the work for that particular class and then move on to the next one. And as a final tip: don’t forget to take a day off—we all need a little break every once in a while. 

Kiri: Syllabi are useful for keeping yourself on track during the semester. Most syllabi outline weekly readings and assignment due dates and give you details for expectations for assignments. At the graduate level, however, I’ve found that many professors err away from over-explaining the details of certain assignments, and sometimes they give you almost no guidelines at all. I’ve found that weekly reviews or end of term papers have the most instances of general or unclear descriptions and figuring out what exactly your professor wants from you could be tricky. Not knowing exactly what to do is uncomfortable, but it’s good to get used to this level of discomfort. After all, there isn’t going to someone there to give you strict guidelines when you’re working on your thesis or your dissertation. Your professors might be trying to help you find your voice while also honing your skills in academic writing. Knowing their good intentions doesn’t exactly help the anxiety of not knowing what on Earth you’re supposed to do though.

Graduate school is a time where you should start learning to quickly and concisely learn how to write a variety of different scholarly work— whether weekly responses, book reviews, or term papers. When your syllabus lacks clear instructions, I’ve found it useful to look up some examples of the type of writing you’re required to produce and try to emulate that. It’s also always a good idea to lean on your friends and colleagues. Exchange papers to make sure what you’re saying at least makes sense, and then as the semester progresses you can grow. Uncertainty can be stressful, but learning to operate within that discomfort and adapting, especially when instructions are lax, will help prepare you for when you’re researching on your own. 

Chelsi: The year is 2017 and I’ve decided to go back to school to get my masters. I was not given funding, so I secured a job with fairly good pay and flexible hours, a really great gig…at the movie theatre. I make my schedule, excited that after taking five or six classes in my undergrad years, I only have to sign up for three now. Everything was going to be perfect.

Things were definitely not perfect. As I have mentioned before that schedule didn’t last past one week. Reading those first syllabi, I was overwhelmed, scared, and anxious. My professors explained what was expected of the class in the first hour, and then jumped straight in for the next two. All those readings a week, final papers that I either didn’t understand (Historiography is much too big a word to not be scary) or were twice as long as anything I had written before. I couldn’t skip classes anymore and all assignments were required to be done (no more the lowest grade will be dropped). That anxiety the first time was overwhelming, and while it’s been three years since then, some syllabi still make me consider dropping out.

Overall, in 2017 that first week panic helped me realize that the schedule I had made for myself was not going to happen. I just needed to take a deep breath, pull out my planner, and chart week by week the assignments. While some weeks looked like hell, it also gave me a good indication of when things needed to be done. Syllabi are there to help you adjust your time and expectations, not to just scare you. Take a deep breath and it’ll be fine.

Clayton: When going onto a new class, I think that we all expect and prepare for the scare tactics approach from the professor and the syllabus. We expect to be bombarded with requirements and deadlines, however, what happens when it’s the exact opposite? In classes that I’ve had where there is no real scare tactics moment, it at first feels like a major relief. We’ve all had those moments of anxiety while the syllabus is being reviewed, so it can feel great to not have those initial pressures. These feelings only increase when there is also a lack of firm deadlines and assignments for the course. At first glance this makes it seem like the workload will be less than the other graduate courses, the one “easy” course everyone’s always looking for each semester.

These feelings shouldn’t last long, however. Even if a course/professor feels initially underwhelming, it is still a graduate course filled with graduate level coursework. While it may have no set deadlines, it can be risky to let work slide or come into the class unfocused on the work. While pushing one assignment back may seem like not a big deal, that can lead to pushing back the next one to finish the first one, on and on until you have three major assignments due the last week of the semester for one class. I’ve had a few classes like this and in my experience the best way to deal with this is to treat the suggested deadlines as hard deadlines. It helps keep you in a routine for the “easier” class, so you don’t risk falling behind. To sum this up with a fun paraphrase: the greatest trick a grad professor ever pulled was making their class seem easy.   

Stephen: Many of us are used to receiving a highly structured syllabus that lays out every project, point, and period that is required during a single semester. Typically, a syllabus is required for every class to be approved by the department and it provides a comprehensive schedule to follow. It is a rare occurrence that a class does not have a syllabus, but there are some exceptions at the graduate level like independent or directed studies. These classes may or may not provide a syllabus, or the syllabus is something created by yourself and the professor at the beginning of the semester. Again, this is an extremely rare occurrence; however, in my experience a class without a hard and fast syllabus is not necessarily a bad thing. I have taken part in two separate graduate classes that did not provide a syllabus. The first was an independent studies class that was based on achieving a single yet arduous goal that was set by myself and the professor. This class did not need a syllabus since it was research oriented. The second class I took that had no syllabus was a directed reading class that was highly specialized and only had a few students attend each week. Based on the subject matter and overall attendance, the schedule of readings and assignments was created the week before the next class. A “no syllabus” class is inherently challenging, its downfalls are evident, and it is something that many of us are not used to. Counter to the pitfalls, in my opinion they provide a great way to connect students and professors in class creation, self-responsibility, focused research, and at the same time fuel unrestricted creativity.

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