Syllabi are often bland and administrative documents—filled with lists of texts, deadlines, policies, and requirements, but with little to say about the actual intellectual work of a course.
But I want my course materials to offer students a fuller sense of who I am as a writer and thinker. One way I begin to do so is through writing a brief piece describing my aims for the course and how I hope to see the semester unfold. (On most of my course sites, this piece appears on the About and What to Expect pages.) In talking with other teachers I’ve come across a number of labels for this sort of piece: course overview, plan, narrative, agenda , etc. But I think they all have the same goal: To describe a course in intellectual rather than bureaucratic terms.
I think you need to do at least two things in this sort of opening statement:
- Define the issues and questions that will drive the work of the course: For instance, in the About page for a recent course, I try to explain why I think the concept of style is an interesting and difficult one for a writing course to take up—since it both describes what everyone is expected to do (in order to be “in style”), and how an individual tries to set herself apart from the group (in order to have “your own style”).
- Offer a sense of how the course will play out over time: What will you start the semester by doing? What projects will follow? How will you finish up? How do the various parts of the course connect? What’s its arc?
Well, and maybe a third thing, too. This is a chance for you to set a tone, to present yourself to your students as someone interested in doing more than simply taking attendance, grading papers, and exacting penalties for late work. It is a moment when you can instead offer them a sense of who you are as a writer, intellectual, and teacher.
Please draft a course overview for our seminar meeting tomorrow (Tuesday, 5/21). Aim for about 500 words or so. Feel free to re-use some of the language of the course description you sent in with your application for the Koshland fellowship. Please bring two copies of your draft with you tomorrow. We will discuss them in seminar.