August 21, 2017

Read the Syllabus, Van Halen Style

WynnBy Jonathan Wynn

Welcome back to school! Lots of books, new friends, new classes. It’s a lot to take in.

With all the hubbub, it might slip your mind to read your syllabus carefully. I understand. You’re busy. You might think, “Hey, this class is like all the other ones. I’ll figure it out as I go along.” But, as you should expect, I couldn’t disagree more!

To encourage you to read your syllabus carefully, I would like to tell you an infamous story about a 1980s rock band, Van Halen.

Van Halen was known for their wild stage shows. They had pyrotechnics, lights, and state of the art sound production that matched Eddie Van Halen’s guitar virtuosity and singer David Lee Roth’s outrageous style. They were the quintessential rock and roll band in their day and, at the time, Van Halen was putting on the biggest stage show in the world. (Yes, I saw them three times.) One of the other things they were known for was their absurd rider.

A “rider” is a part of a band’s contract to perform at a venue. A show promoter signs a contract, agreeing to a band’s demands. These agreed upon backstage conditions assure the band that even though they are in a new city every night, things would be set for them and their crew upon arrival at every venue. Van Halen’s rider was known for being over the top: they demanded specific kinds of cheese, herring in sour cream, etc. But buried in the 42-page document they slipped one more demand: A bowl of M&Ms with ABSOLUTELY NO BROWN ONES. (See the rider here.)

If a venue didn’t follow Van Halen’s rider, there could be drastic consequences. If the band found a single brown M&M in their dressing room, the contract would be nullified and the promoter would still have to pay the band. Plus: Van Halen was known to completely trash backstage as a response.

Now, why am I sharing this story with you now? Well, you’re likely receiving your own contracts in your very first days of class: course syllabi. The syllabus is a contract. I’m giving you this story to remind you to pay attention to the details.

You see, the complicated instructions detailed in our syllabi are not unlike Van Halen’s rider. They might seem excessive, but they are crafted with purpose. They have lots of details with your success in mind. We put a lot of effort into them! It can be quite frustrating for faculty to be bombarded with emails asking questions that have answers in the syllabus. (There are so many variations of theIt’s in the syllabus!” meme on the internet.)

So, are faculty rock and roll divas?? That’s not my point at all!

You see, Van Halen’s rider was not some superstar jerks making demands just because they could. It wasn’t about that. Brown M&Ms don’t signal the status of the band for the venue, it’s an opportunity for the venue to signal to the band that they have paid attention to every detail of their contract.

I opened the Van Halen story with a description of the scale and technicality of their show to underscore that the band needed to be assured that every detail to help them put on that show was carefully attended to by the promoter. If the band saw brown M&Ms in their dressing room, then they could not be assured that the very technical details their live performance demanded were followed. And when you’re talking about tons of sound equipment and pyrotechnics, their lives and the lives of their audience are at risk. A brown M&M meant that the venue was being sloppy, and the band’s anger, with this in mind, makes more sense. (Here’s singer David Lee Roth explaining it with great humor.)

And so, yes, you’d better believe I embed something in my syllabus about brown M&Ms. After distributing the syllabus in class and discussing the bigger points, I tell students that their first assignment is to read the syllabus carefully. On the last page of my syllabus, in with the ‘”rules of classroom engagement” and the statements about our campus Honor Code, I have a line that says “The first person to email me a picture of an M&M gets a bag of them on the second day of class.”

Sure, it is a little sneaky.

Part of teaching is, assuredly, competing with a variety of other demands on student time and attention. But we put a lot of effort in the syllabus, deadlines, expectations, grading rubrics, expectations of workload, and more. I even include a bit in there that says, “Because questions like ‘Did I miss anything in class?’ do not bring out my personal and professional best, please make a friend in class you can email about missed class content.” (A phrasing lifted fully, with permission, from my friend Dwanna Robertson.) All those “It’s on the syllabus!” memes make a little more sense now, right?

Who knows what your professor put in their syllabus? Don’t worry, though. I’ve yet to see a syllabus longer than 42 pages!

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