What is in a Syllabus?

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by Julie Haefner

As someone who has been a Teaching Assistant for a while, and a student for even longer, syllabi are nothing new to me. Almost every semester I would look forward to getting the syllabi in the first week of class (and color-code everything – much to the ridicule of some of my fellow students who attributed this to my German organization). To my delight, this past semester I took a graduate course called teaching practicum in which one of our final assignments was to design a syllabus for a class that we would hopefully teach one day. I choose to write a syllabus for the 1865 to modern day U.S. history survey course offered here at Central Michigan University. Throughout this assignment I learned a great deal about how to put together a syllabus – a challenge that was much more difficult than anticipated. 

The first task in the process was to come up with learning objectives. What was the purpose of this class? What did I want my students to learn? What kind of skills would they acquire? One of my learning objectives, for example, was for students to develop public speaking and presentation skills. I still had to learn how to present effectively myself (something that I still sometimes struggle with), and it is my belief that universities need to do more in this regard to prepare students. Presenting is a skill, just like writing. With this in mind, one of the assignments that I come up for my students was to in groups prepare presentations on the changing landscape of New York City in the early 20th century. 

Aside from the topics covered in the class, any good syllabus also must include thoughtful course policies. Some of my polices are pretty standard and required by the university. Others I could customize: the use of electronics (absolutely not), the policy for late assignments (loss of 1/3 of a letter grade for each day late), or proper e-mail proceedures. What helped me most in coming up with course policies was my extensive experience as a teaching assistant. Over the years I have seen a variety of course policies, and I selected my favorite policies from all the professors with whom I have worked.

In addition, I had to come up with means to evaluate students; I chose a variety of different means to accommodate different student learners: participation, written papers, journaling, and class presentations. In doing so I had to ask myself questions like: Does this assignment make sense for my learning objectives and the content of the course? Does the assignment work? (something that most likely I will figure out once, and when, I teach this particular class) Am I including a diversity of methods to accommodate different learning types? 

Teaching survey courses is by no means an easy endeavor. Depending on the scope of the course, the professor must cover a wide range of topics.  This is especially true for world history courses, for example, since they cover a large geographical area and time span. Thankfully the post-1865 U.S. history survey course “only” needs to cover about 126 years. It was, however, not easy for me to pack everything into around 15 weeks of actual class time. Modern United States history has, after all, seen quite a bit of turmoil: from Reconstruction to two world wars, isolationism in the 1920s and 1930s, the New Deal, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movements. My own research interests lie in diplomatic history, and in particular the Gerald Ford Presidency. In a perfect world I would have told my students everything about my dissertation. But when teaching a survey course that is simply not possible. While obviously students should know about Gerald Ford (he was a Michigander after all), the main reason for taking this survey course is not to learn everything about my particular research topic. Balancing my own interests and passions while keeping in mind what students needed from that particular course was sometimes challenging.  I was able to use some diplomatic history in designing their final paper though – the so-called cable assignment. 

Overall designing a syllabus has been interesting and worthwhile. There is much more that goes into it than students usually think: What kind of material do I as a teacher want to cover? What should my students learn? What kind of previous knowledge can I assume they have? And finally the most important question (at least in my opinion): What kind of teacher do I want to be? Hopefully one day I get to teach the course that I designed, and maybe I can even inspire my students to color-code their syllabus.