This morning, as I was running to get to a 5K race on the FSU campus, I saw that a new sign had been put up in front of the local dog park. The sign caught my attention because it is truly a large sign-so large that it actually has its own little roof. The sign provides a list of the new rules for the dog park. The previous sign was much smaller and simply attached to the fence. By way of comparison, the old sign has 10 rules and the new one has 14. Interestingly, one of the new rules is that folks who go to the dog park need to have photo ID on them. I assume that this is in the case of trouble and that this rule probably arose from some specific incident or incidents.
As I continued on to my 5K, I thought about the big sign and this led me to think about my own syllabus. As with the dog park, the rules I have for my classes have increased with each passing year. When I first started teaching, my syllabus just had information about the class. Then I had to add more and more rules and policies. Some were required by the university while others had to be added in response to problems. That is, not surprisingly, the major source of rule creep: some innovator commits a new wrong or causes a new problem and this leads to a new rule.
In the past, I foolishly believed that a degree of common sense could be expected from people. But, experience has taught me that sense is not very common. Like many people, one of my great moments of enlightenment was when I saw that coffee containers started bearing the warning that the contents might be hot. Presumably they thought about adding that hot coffee should not be applied to one’s groin but that might be seen as a form of sexual harassment.
In the case of my syllabus, I have had to add new rules due to various problems. Rather than have a monster syllabus, I started posting additional rules on my website (in the form of FAQs). For classes with papers, I also have a set of policies that the students download (or more likely do not). I have had to do this because, for example, I’ve encountered some students who think that copying and pasting from Wikipedia is a legitimate way to write a paper. I have also had to add rules about students turning in identical papers, students who skip the first week (or two) of classes, students who turn in blank papers, and so on.
While one reason for the rules and policies is so students know what to expect, the main reason is a psychological one: I know I warned everyone and hence I feel fine when I apply the rules.
Of course, the rules on my syllabus are only of interest to people in my classes (and usually not even to them). However, the same process applies to laws, as the dog park sign indicates. In fact, there always seems to be more rules. In some cases this is fine, such as cases in which the rules are needed. In other cases, it isn’t so great. After all, while ignorance of the law is no excuse, it is clearly impossible for anyone to keep up with all the laws today.