Friday, January 20, 2012

Building a Syllabus

I was talking with a colleague a bit back about building a syllabus. We have quite different approaches, and it interests me to think about the relative benefits of each approach.

In fact, though, I have a slightly different approach in my writing classes than in my lit classes.

In lit classes, I hand out a pretty obsessive syllabus with all the assignments on the calendar and also detailed in the syllabus. Someone could, I suppose, walk out on the first day and just hand in great assignments and do well in the class. (It's never happened; in fact, I tend to have good attendance in my classes. It probably helps that there are small assignments due relatively often in class.)

For example, if I'm having lit students write an assignment for a given day of class, the assignment is on the syllabus/calendar. So, if they're asked to write on a passage in a text, I've put down the line number information. (It's a pain in the rear to do it ahead, but better than trying to keep on top of things and do it later.)

For writing classes, I give the due dates and journal assignments on the syllabus, but don't give detailed information about the essay assignments until we're starting to work on a given essay.

I had done these differently for a while without thinking a lot about it, but when I did think about it, I thought that first year students would get too wound up with the research assignment too early, and not focus well on what we're working on to build up to it. Maybe that's not the best approach, though? (I could hand out all the essay assignments ahead. It would take a couple hours of prep each to revise from the last time, but I do that prep at some point anyway.)

In the lit classes, most students are at least second year students, and I think it helps them to know what's coming and to see the way the course is built. I don't think most of them think that much about course building, but they can see on the first day of class when each thing is due and plan ahead, and I know some students take that seriously.

My colleague, though, gave students a broad outline, but didn't give them assignments ahead because zie makes them up as the class goes. So, the class might know there's a short essay due in a month, but not exactly when, and not what.

I also have colleagues who give out modular calendars and assignments. For example, they'll hand out a three week calendar and assignments, and do that four or five times during a term. (Their opening syllabus will include the legal stuff, and the opening week or two.)

And I've seen a colleague's syllabus that basically gives the legal stuff and then zie gives assignments daily on the board, pretty much. (That's how most of my high school classes worked, as I recall.)

What works for you? For your students?

What are the benefits or drawbacks to different approaches for you? For your students?

Does the course level (first year, undergrad, senior seminar, grad) matter?

ps. I'm almost done with my syllabus stuff for the semester! Just a few passages to look up and some thinking about other reading for my senior seminar!


  1. I tend to create them like you: pretty detailed reading/ongoing assignments but hold off on the particulars of the big stuff until we're closer to that.

    I know people who unfold the syllabus as they go and I rather admire that, but the way my brain works, I need the Big Plan from the get-go. :)

  2. richard10:06 AM

    I tend to do my syllabuseses(es) a half at a time, so partway through the semester I unveil the rest of the semester. I claim that I do this to maximize flexibility and increase the students' input on course material--but I suspect that I'm just easily bored. Mostly it works, but I have had semesters when the last part of the semester strikes even me as a bit pasted together....

  3. I have a pretty complete syllabus, but the actual assignments are vague (Short paper due March 23; etc.) That way on the first day they can see the shape of the course. However, I alwawys note that the schedule is tentative, and subject to change. And it does get changed.