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Autism & Understanding Common Syllabus Phrases

This is the second in a series of posts about determining what, exactly, the professor’s expectations are for your successful completion of a course. We call it “Hidden Curriculum” because the resources that we’re carefully unpacking and explaining here often have implicit expectations and repercussions that accompany explicit instructions and directions. These posts will support your better understanding of the resources at your disposal and help you make use of them more fully.

As mentioned in part one of this series, syllabi are important documents that serve as guidelines for the entire course, including important information about the instructor or instructors, course goals, and information about assignments and grading.

As you read through your syllabus, you may realize that there are some “gray areas” or phrases that are unclear to you as a student. Here we’ll look at some phrases and idioms that are commonly found on college syllabi. Familiarization with these terms will help give you confidence regarding the instructor’s expectations. However, it’s important to always ask your professor, TA, or tutor if anything is unclear. Here are some definitions and helpful tips to get started.

What Do These Phrases Mean?

TA: Teaching assistant. This person is an assistant to the professor. Sometimes TAs are graduate students or older students currently at the same college. They may be the person grading assignments and they might be available for separate additional office hours from the ones the professor holds. They have often taken the course recently, so they can be a helpful resource for the students.

Open door policy: This means that the professor will make themselves available to all students equally, in order to encourage open communication, questions, feedback, and concerns. An “open door policy” usually coincides with Office Hours, where the professor will be in their office at a designated time each week. Office Hours provide the opportunity to speak to a professor about an upcoming assignment, questions about a past test score, and general conversations regarding anything from attendance to group project expectations.  A student does not need a specific appointment time or necessarily even a specific question or agenda in order to come in during these times. It often helps, though, to be organized and ready with some materials or questions you may have. Also, the door might not literally be open, but you can always knock! Don’t take the sight of a closed door as an assumption that the professor is not in.

Hidden Curriculum Alert: If your professor says something like, “You might want to come see me for help with the next assignment” or “You could really benefit from discussing your outline/paper/project with me in office hours,” what they’re really saying is: You need help with this, and if you don’t seek extra help from me (or the TA, if there is one), you are likely to earn a low grade.” Additionally, if your professor indicates that you should go to a tutoring or writing center with similar “advice,” consider it more of a directive than a suggestion. “You may find that your paper would improve significantly if you got some help from a writing tutor,” more accurately means, “Go to the writing center and get support and guidance on this paper if you want not only to improve your writing skills but also to earn a better grade.”

Submit to Blackboard, D2L, or other online classroom platforms: Blackboard is a website and app that allows instructors to post material online for students to log on and access.  If something needs to be “submitted to blackboard” the assignment or discussion board post is expected to be uploaded online by the date announced by the professor. You will not need to have a hard copy to give to the professor.

Tip: Sometimes online assignments are due on a day other than the day your class is held! Be vigilant in keeping track of any and all due dates because if you’re only focused on the specific days of class, these could pass without you realizing!

Emergency/family emergency: Many professors will allow students to be excused from a class or a test given a family emergency. In certain cases, they may extend a due date for a project or paper as well. Family emergencies or personal emergencies typically consist of major unexpected illnesses, injuries, or deaths.  Events like weddings and vacations are less likely to be granted an exception and will not constitute as an emergency. Typically the syllabus will outline the policy for what to do in the case of religious holidays and observances. If you think a family emergency has arisen that you will need to miss class for, check in with the TA or professor via email or ask a trusted classmate whether they think that the circumstances would validate an extension or exception. Sometimes in a large lecture type course, missing one class is not a big deal and will not need to be brought up. In other classes, the teacher might take attendance each class and therefore a missed day might reflect poorly on you.

Ghosted: When you do not show up for something that you were expected to show up at without informing the other students or the professor. This word might be used in reference to class attendance, group projects, and/or communication with a professor or other students. Ghosting = something to avoid.

Dropping a class: There is always a college-wide “add/drop” day that represents the date that you are able to change your class schedule without penalty and/or losing any money. Dropping the class means that it will be removed from your schedule and you will no longer be enrolled in that class for any credit. Sometimes you need an advisor to give permission to drop a class.

Good shape: Things are in order and are meeting expectations.  A professor might write something like “If you do all your assignments on time and study for the exams you will be in good shape.” Typically this means that you are heading towards receiving a high grade at the end of the semester.

Like any reading you will do in your college courses, it is always important to stop and check for understanding when reading and deciphering the course syllabus. Whenever anything remains confusing, check in with a trusted peer or one of the instructors to make sure you accurately comprehend all the explicit and implicit instructions that are necessary to achieve your goals for the class.

Next post: we will tease apart the Course Calendar!

What are some other common phrases you’ve had to parse or figure out? Do you have an experience with misunderstanding a phrase that led to an issue in class? Let us know in the comments.

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Katie Newton

Katie is a part time speech and language pathologist and part time professional runner. Katie received both her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from Boston University in Speech, Hearing, and Language Sciences and Speech-Language Pathology, respectively. She also trains on the Boston Athletic Association High Performance Team. Katie has experience in public and private schools as well as private clinic settings. She works with children and young adults with a variety of disabilities, including those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Katie loves to share executive functioning and planning tips along with the more traditional social language strategies to help students succeed.

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