Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Sharing a Syllabus Hint

When I started teaching, we all kept things in physical files. You know, those paper manila thingies that look like file icons, but way bigger? Yep. I still do. Back in those days, when I worked from an Amiga 500 (what a great machine, too!), with minimal memory, an external hard drive added, and 3.25" floppy disks, I came up with a system for keeping teaching files that works pretty darned well. And a year or two ago, when the chair asked for copies of our syllabus materials (like the way I snuck around trying to figure out if it's a Latin or Greek root for the plural?) in electronic form for the first time, I sent mine in, and the chair sent me a "hey, that's a really good idea" response, which led me to believe that not everyone does it this way.

I start with a master folder for each class, labeled by course number and semester. Within that, I start with files for each class. One is the "syllabus" document and the other the "calendar" document. (I also usually have a book order document.)

The syllabus file includes the information students need about the class in terms of who I am, contact information, office hours, a description of the class, goals (some of these are required by our programs or the university), policy statements (services for students with disability, academic honesty, attendance). Then there's information about requirements, and most of the time basic information about assignments. The first part of this is pretty "boilerplate" for a given level of class. My first year writing class introductory materials look pretty similar every year, though my office hours change. My senior seminar classes have the same basic policies, and so forth.

I think it's important to cite policy information so that students see an active model of citation from the beginning. It just seems silly to quote the plagiarism policy without appropriately citing it, doesn't it?

The second part changes lots depending on what I'm doing each semester. I like to try new things, which is great, but adds a lot of prep time. Still, I find that if I put in the prep time ahead of the game, and really think through how assignments will fit and work to build a class experience, things work better than if I wait. I also like my students to be able to look at the materials on the first day of classes and know when things will be due, and what they need to do to complete assignments and such. I think that's especially important for students whose lives are complicated by jobs, family responsibilities, etc.

I label the syllabus by course number, semester and "syl" so that I can know what it is with a quick glance.

Over the summer sometime, I ask a student worker to type up a calendar for the semester, with all the important campus dates. (Because our summer workers aren't really busy, and they can do that fine.) There's a space between each week. It looks like this (or some variant):

9/01 – Mon. – No Class.
9/03 – Wed.
9/05 – Fri.

9/08 – Mon.

I title this one with the course number, semester, and either sched or cal, depending on what the student uses.

So within my course folder, labeled Eng 123 f2008, I have two files, one Eng123 f2008 syl.doc, and the other Eng123 f2008 syl.doc. (You could do the calendar on another program, but I'm a pretty basic computer skills person, so I like a word processing program of some sort.)

So why?

First, if you're like me, you do up your syllabus and calendar, and then print them out to proofread. Then you find a problem, make a change, and reprint. The four page syllabus (because how many goals do we all have to put on for every class?) looks good, but then I decide to change some due dates on the calendar. So I can print out a two page calendar, and not waste the extra paper. (It's a small thing, but it's trees.) So it saves in that way.

But even better, when you go to teach the same or a similar class another semester, you pull out the syllabus, and change what needs changed, and you're good to go. You can't often use the same calendar dates. But you can open two word processing windows, side by side, and cut and paste from the old into the new with adjustments and jiggling, additions, subtractions, and so forth. I find it saves me a bit of time to not have to start totally from scratch. And if you have to adjust the calendar during the semester, it's easy to just redo the weeks to come, save it as a separate "revised" file, and print out only one page for each student (or email it).

When I'm actually ready to get copies, I can print both out and have them copied as one chunk of stuff, all in one color (because I love colors!). Or I can hand out the syllabus and calendar separately if I prefer.

Physically, for each class, I make a real folder. I staple a copy of the syllabus with the calendar on top to the left side, and a copy of my course roster on the right. Then a copy of anything I hand out goes in. I carry it to and from classes (I always write the time and place of classes in big letters on the front, so I don't mess up and go into someone else's class too often), and then at the end of the semester, put a copy of the final grade information in, and file it away. If I need to find something later, it's there.

Over my years here, I've taught 20 different courses (with different numbers), so being organized helps keep me a bit saner. I have super master folders, with several semesters of Eng 123 (a made up class here, I think). That's especially important for the writing course I teach pretty much every semester.

So, care to share other strategies for keeping your teaching materials organized and accessible?


  1. Interesting post. This is amazingly similar to what I do, except that I'm my own "student worker" and consult the online academic calendar for those dates. I usually use the old syllabus as a template and rename it.

  2. Hey Undine, thanks :) I use the old stuff as a template, too, when I can.