Posts Tagged ‘Syllabus’

As the fall semester winds down I find myself thinking about how to improve the less-than-perfect aspects of my courses for the spring.  Unfortunately, I still haven’t found the perfect method for motivating my students to come to class prepared to engage in intelligent discussions of the reading (and it is increasingly evident that daily quizzes in 50-minute classes have a number of drawbacks).  To this end I am considering a range of options including providing discussion questions ahead of class and taking some of the control over who participates and who does not away from students.  I am also thinking of stealing some lines from a syllabus by David Foster Wallace.

Katie Roiphe at Slate notes that Wallace’s section on participation notes that:

Even in a seminar class, it seems a little silly to require participation. Some students who are cripplingly shy, or who can’t always formulate their best thoughts and questions in the rapid back-and-forth of a group discussion, are nevertheless good and serious students. On the other hand, as Prof — points out supra, our class can’t really function if there isn’t student participation—it will become just me giving a half-assed ad-lib lecture for 90 minutes, which (trust me) will be horrible in all kinds of ways.

As you might expect, he also has some words of wisdom for students’ typical approach to writing:

If you are used to whipping off papers the night before they’re due, running them quickly through the computer’s Spellchecker, handing them in full of high-school errors and sentences that make no sense and having the professor accept them ‘because the ideas are good’ or something, please be informed that I draw no distinction between the quality of one’s ideas and the quality of those ideas’ verbal expression, and I will not accept sloppy, rough-draftish, or semiliterate college writing. Again, I am absolutely not kidding.

While I don’t have the reputation of David Foster Wallace (nor am I teaching at Pomona), giving students a clearer picture of expectations upfront is a key component of holding them to those expectations near the end of the semester.

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So you’ve gotten a job.  Congratulations!  Celebrate a bit (then stop procrastinating and get back to work on your dissertation).  One thing that those of us lucky enough to receive jobs probably haven’t dealt with yet is what we’re going to do about the courses we’ll be teaching in the fall.

In some ways, this question reflects all of the reasons that we wanted jobs in the first place.  My future department recently contacted me to tell me which courses they would like me to teach in the fall and to ask when I wanted to teach them.  The idea that I had control over my schedule was foreign to me and I didn’t quite know how to handle it.  After regaining my composure, which required looking at the department website to see how others had structured their schedules, I suggested some times that were accepted by the department.  The scheduling process made the fact that I have a job for the fall a lot more real, and reminded me that I need to get back to work on my dissertation.

Thankfully, my fall schedule was free of surprises since I had discussed the courses that I would teach at my interview.  Because I only have one new prep (and this course is at least tangentially related to my interests), I don’t have to worry as much as some others in my position.  So far I’ve checked out the syllabi of others and requested a few desk copies of relevant books, but I’m sure that things will get more hectic (thankfully, I’ve got the power) as the time to order books and finalize my own syllabus approaches.

Rob Weir at Inside Higher Ed has some additional advice for new professors:

  • Relax.
  • Don’t reinvent the wheel.
  • Ignorance can be bliss.
  • Say goodbye to grad school.
  • Haul blocks.
  • Black and white goes with everything.
  • Ratchet up, not down.
  • Function follows form.
  • Be clear and fair. (The rest will follow.)

Like me, you may have thought that you went into higher ed so that you don’t have to haul blocks, but Weir explains his advice in more detail in his post.  I’ll keep this advice in mind as fall approaches.

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I have attended a number of talks over the years focused on getting a liberal arts job.  Because I did not attend a liberal arts school as an undergraduate, I took every available opportunity to learn about the expectations and intricacies of these jobs, from applications to faculty meetings.  There are several sociological liberal artists who have a tendency to appear at these talks, among them Ed Kain from Southwestern University and Keith Roberts from Hanover College.

Because I have seen him give several such talks there have been several times that I’ve heard Roberts tell an audience of grad students that he does not consider applications from students that include syllabi less than 20 pages in length because he takes this as a sign that the applicant does not care about teaching.  I remember sitting dumbfounded the first time I heard this, wondering alternately what would fill a 20 page syllabus and why I thought I cared about teaching when my longest syllabi were less than ten pages.  Inevitably, Roberts disclosed in the Q&A that his syllabi include all course assignments and that students with shorter syllabi could add an appendix with their assignments and class exercises so as not to end up in the “I will not even look at your application” pile when applying for a position at Hanover.

Unfortunately for me, the sociology department at Hanover was not hiring this year.  If it were, I feel confident that Roberts would have placed my application in the “to be considered further” pile based on the number of times I’ve heard him speak.  For every other job application, however, one cannot be so sure what the hiring committee is looking for in a syllabus.  A good way to avoid this problem is to write good syllabi in the first place and then include assignments and exercises when sending them with your application packets on the job market (just in case!).

With this in mind, Rob Wier has written a brief guide to a good syllabus on Inside Higher Ed.  The most important part is this:

A good syllabus is the organizing structure of a course, an unambiguous statement of expectations, and a professor’s first line of defense in disputes over policy, procedure, and grades. Your syllabus should lay out what you expect students to do, why you want it, when you want it, and what happens if students don’t comply. Assume nothing and spell out everything. The more you put in your syllabus up front, the less you’ll have to negotiate or explain later.

Update: Amelia at the Contexts Blog has posted some resources from the University of Buffalo.

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