The other day, a student spoke about how "unwelcoming" a college could be. She spoke of being made to feel like a nuisance when she sought help from college staff members. Then someone else--an administrator, this time--talked about how he once, as a sort of experiment, decided to stand in line at the Admissions counter to get a sense of what the experience was like. He described being struck by the preponderance of signage advising people what they couldn't do: "Please end all cell phone conversations before speaking to the clerical staff"; "Do not place anything on the counter"; "Please do not tease or feed the financial aid representatives." I kid about that last one, but you get the idea.
The student then went on to describe how, from her point of view, so much of the communication she experienced at the college took this kind of negative or domineering tone: the typical class syllabus, for example. Now, a syllabus is, essentially, a contract between an instructor and his class. It outlines what the course will cover, as well as the expectations for both students and faculty. As such, the syllabus must be fairly extensive and formal. And this formality can certainly be intimidating: "Assignments must be handed in on the dates indicated. No late assignments will be accepted, and students will receive a grade of '0' for any assignment not handed in": "All written assignments must follow MLA format. Any papers that fail to adhere to MLA format will receive a failing grade": "Students who miss more than six hours of class will be dropped from the class."
Again, as a quasi-legal document, the course syllabus must serve its contractual obligation and clearly delineate the rules and expectations. But what the student said got me thinking about why (or whether) an official document had to be so draconian sounding. What would a "softer" syllabus sound like? "In order for me [i.e., the instructor] to give you helpful feedback on your work, you need to make sure that you hand work in on time. Unfortunately, due to the limited time we have over the course of the semester, I cannot accept late work"; "In this class, you will learn how to document sources properly using MLA format. After you learn these techniques, you will need to apply them to your formal written assignments for this--and other--classes"; "We cover a lot of information in our class meetings, so, if you miss more than six hours of class, you will not be able to do all the necessary work to achieve a passing grade. In that event, I may drop you from the class so that you do not receive a failing grade."
A difference without a distinction? Possibly. Still, it pays for an organization to think about the minor variations possible in the ways it interacts with its clientele. Small gestures in the service of better presentation may make a big difference to the customer.