Lessons Learned from Teaching: Part 1, Syllabus

This semester I taught my first undergraduate class, a freshman-level survey of global literature with a heavy writing component. I took a class on pedagogy in the Spring designed to prepare me to teach this course, but there really is no substitute for experience. In this week-long series, I will discuss some of the things I learned over the course of the semester. Today I will discuss my syllabus.

Before I ever stepped into the classroom, I had a strong sense of what I could expect from teaching ENGL 175: Global Lit. in English. Graduate students at my university, unlike many of my peers at public institutions, are only expected to teach one semester (with two semesters as a teaching assistant). The syllabus is mostly designed for us, and so we end up teaching the same texts. It’s a course designed by committee; though survey courses are notorious for what they exclude as much as what they include on the syllabus, this one is particularly egregious. Not only are we expected to cover the major literary movements of the twentieth century (modernism, postcolonialism, postmodernism, etc), but also we have to fit this within a “global” setting. If someone has figured out how to fit the globe into a 14-week course, I’d love to exchange notes with you.

The standard syllabus includes such works as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, DeLillo’s White Noise, and Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera. I should first mention that this is a fairly decent line up; good mix of genres, styles, and authors. But it wouldn’t work for me, especially not as the syllabus for my first class. A certain amount of prep always goes into each new class, but I knew I would go crazy if I had to go into class each day with a question mark hanging over my head.

I added Stoker’s Dracula in lieu of Conrad, Coetzee’s Foe rather than Achebe, and Egan’s Visit from the Goon Squad (which I raved about in February) rather than DeLillo. I added some Borges short stories, included Paul Celan and Wallace Stevens, and taught Tokarczuk’s House of Day, House of Night, a novel composed of interconnected short stories by a Polish writer because I myself enjoyed reading it as an undergrad.

Playing with the texts to include on the syllabus was fun, but it’s only part of what goes on the syllabus. The syllabus is a contract with your students; all course policies and assignments should be listed, as well as how students will be evaluated. It’s a code between you (the professor) and the student. It’s hard to enforce a strict grading policy, for example, if your syllabus is lax. As I prepared the assignments, I considered what the goals of my class would be (to expose them to a variety of written works and to help the students improve their expository writing ability) and what I wanted my students to learn (literary texts, writing strategies). To that end, I assigned three 5-page papers spread out over the course of the semester, and a daily journal due the same day as the papers. Since it is a freshman-level course, I wanted them to practice writing, but not necessarily in an informal setting. I also wanted them to practice revising their papers, so I assigned a peer-review writing workshop before every paper was due.

I included a strict attendance policy. Unfortunately, as my class was half the size I expected it to be (only 7 students!) I did not take attendance as I assumed that students would consistently show up in a class that small. Big mistake. 4 students absent on a Friday mid-semester in a 30-person class—not a big deal. 4 students absent in a 7-person class, and you have one tired professor talking to herself.

I was very excited about the journal assignment, but that too did not turn out as I had hoped. I had always felt frustrated by online forum-responses that were assigned in some of the classes I had taken as an undergrad and grad student, and that I had to grade as a TA. Some students use forums as an opportunity to write lots of bloated, meaningless garbage that they think is impressive because they use big words. I wanted none of that—but I did want students to keep up with the reading and to think about the reading before class. The journal seemed like a good compromise. But lack of oversight sometimes gave the students just enough rope to hang themselves. Next time, I will revise the assignment to have students turn it in more frequently or assign short 2-page response papers instead.

The peer review workshops were a hit (at least from my perspective). By the end of the semester, the students were engaged with each others’ work, and seemed to embrace sharing their work with their peers rather than me. I did not grade the first drafts, but I did compare them with the final papers to see if students actually did revise. They did, and their writing improved over the course of the semester. I will use this again, but will include a more detailed grading rubric for the drafts and final paper.

That’s the long and long of the syllabus. Come back tomorrow for lessons learned in the classroom.

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2 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Teaching: Part 1, Syllabus

  1. Libby says:

    I loved your novel choices. I also loved: Some students use forums as an opportunity to write lots of bloated, meaningless garbage that they think is impressive because they use big words. I hated sitting in class and hearing kids go on and on without really saying anything. Glad to hear the digital age hasn't taken away kids ability to BS

  2. Anna says:

    Agreed. But they great thing about being an instructor (rather than suffering through it as a student) is that you can call the BS'ers out on their crap both in class and through their grade.

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