Help with teaching, part 4: the syllabus (content)

In my last few posts, I’ve focused on the theories behind the syllabus. In this post, I focus on how to choose the content (or coverage) of your class. These decisions are very personal, both because you have your own interests (and your class should reflect them!) and because the amount that you can cover in a class meeting or a term is dependent on a number of factors, such as how long your terms are, how long and how many class meetings you have, the level of the course (intro, advanced, etc.), and how fast you talk, among other things. So what I say here should really be taken as guideline, not gospel. But with that understood, there are a few things you can consider when making your own personal syllabus choices.

Coverage is the first and most difficult choice for a new course. There are two ways to help you make the decision. First, take a look at your department’s curriculum. Is your class a prereq for something? If so, what will your students need to know by the end of your course to succeed in the next step? For example, if your course on Greek history is a prereq for a seminar on Greek law, you should probably spend some time discussing the background to Greek law, like the democratic government. Would you be doing that anyway? Of course! But making sure that your course fits the overall curriculum doesn’t mean that you have to radically re-invent the wheel. Curricula are planned carefully for this very reason.

It’s also possible that a prereq might make you add new material or emphasize new material that you might not otherwise have done. If your Greek history class is a prereq for an Alexander course, you might want to pay extra attention to the Alexander in Herodotus 6, flagging him for students who will continue to the next level. You may even want to add that as a reading if you were not planning to read it otherwise.

Another important departmental resource is old syllabi, other professors, or other grad students who have taught the course before. Don’t be afraid to ask if you can borrow their ideas! Although there is some controversy about copyrighting syllabi, you can always ask permission to reuse or modify someone’s work.

There are also resources beyond your department. Google searches for other syllabi in your subject area may give you ideas for topics, activities, and more. But the same rules apply: don’t copy someone’s syllabus without asking! It’s also important to make sure that you have the same length class sessions when arranging your schedule of readings. You can do a lot more in an 80 minute period than in a 50 minute period. I like to arrange my initial, draft syllabus in week-by-week format, and break it into class sessions later. This extra step lets me adjust to different scheduling blocks more easily. (Because, ideally, you will get to teach your course again! And it’s both easier and better the second, third, etc. time you teach it.)

Speaking of schedules brings me to the most important (but not necessarily the final) choice you’ll make: whether you want to take a linear approach or a block (unit) approach. A linear approach to a syllabus arranges all of the material in a specific order (for example, the order of the textbook or chronological order). Each class builds on the knowledge of the previous class throughout the entire semester. For reasons that will hopefully be obvious, this type of syllabus design is common in history classes and in language classes (where the vocabulary, at least, needs to be learned in a specific order to fully use the chapter exercises). A block approach to the syllabus, in contrast, organizes content into several smaller, self-contained units. At the end of the semester, each unit has been completed, but they don’t necessarily add up to a cumulative ‘big picture’. In fact, the units could conceivably be completed in different orders by different students. This type of syllabus design is more thematic, and is more common in civilization or literature classes; it’s especially favorable for online teaching, because it’s often easier for students to complete a self-paced short unit.

These two types of design aren’t entirely mutually exclusive. You could take a primarily linear approach with 1-2 internal units, such as a history class with separate, non-chronological units on specific topics such as women or law. You could also take a primarily unit-based approach in which the units were organized in a linear fashion: for example, “Slavery in Antiquity” with independent units on helots, slaves in Athens, slaves in Rome, theories of slavery, etc.

As far as coverage per class goes, I tend to assign more class time to material for which there’s more evidence. In a unit on homosexuality, that probably means more time on men than on women, and more time on Greece than on Rome. But this comes with a caveat: if your area of research is in one of these less-researched fields, you should feel free to block off a class to discuss your research after you’ve introduced the background knowledge students will need to understand it. I’ve found that most students are interested in learning about what new research in the field looks like, and even if they don’t know why your work is significant or new, they’ll be eager to hear about what you do. But one class is probably the most time you can commit in an introductory or even intermediate course.

Finally, I usually leave myself one or two “catch-up” days, in case I’ve misjudged how long it takes me to worth through the material. I almost always misjudge, so I highly recommend the “Review” class as a way to build extra time into your syllabus!

Once you’ve arranged your schedule of topics, take a few days off and examine your syllabus with a critical eye. Do your assignments fit the topics and the learning outcomes? Does your schedule prepare students for later courses in your disciple and fit the learning outcomes? Have you left yourself some wiggle room? If your answer to these questions is ‘yes‘, then you’re probably ready to test it on your first class of students!


~J.

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