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. 

The Global Cold War: Gerald Ford and Angola

Left: First official portrait of President Gerald R. Ford. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library - Right: location of angola in africa.

Left: First official portrait of President Gerald R. Ford. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library - Right: location of angola in africa.

By Julianne Haefner

It is finally summer in Michigan – which means all PhD students are just hanging out on one of the beautiful Great Lake beaches, right? Not quite, for many PhD students – like myself – summer is the time to dive into our research (and yes, sometimes dive into Lake Michigan). In this post, I would like to share my on-going dissertation project. I will discuss how I became interested in the topic and what I am hoping to accomplish. As of now, the project is titled: “U.S. Foreign Policy towards Angola during the Ford Administration, 1974 to 1977.”

Backtrack a few years back: At the time I was pursuing a Master of Arts at the University of Jena in Germany. In one of my political science classes, I was assigned to write a research paper about the 1988 New York Accords (also known as the Agreement among the People's Republic of Angola, the Republic of Cuba, and the Republic of South Africa). The accords ended foreign involvement in the Angolan Civil War and granted independence to Namibia (formerly known as South West Africa).

While I had to write a political science paper on the accords, I still had to research the decade-long conflict. I was intrigued. I roughly knew where Angola was. The country is situated at the southwest coast of Africa, with direct access to the Atlantic Ocean. Neighboring countries include Namibia, Zambia, and Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo). What I did not know was that the United States had been financially involved in the civil war. Angola, formerly a Portuguese colony, became independent on November 11, 1975. In the aftermath of independence, a civil war broke out in Angola, with three movements vying for control of the newly independent country: the People's Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the National Front for the Liberation of Angola (FNLA). These movements were backed by outside powers: the United States and some of its European allies supported UNITA, Cuba and the Soviet Union backed the Communist MPLA.

Why, though, did foreign powers become involved in internal Angolan affairs? There are multiple answers. One of them certainly is competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Angola was a proxy war. But this is not the entire story. Angola also has natural resources, in particular oil. Oil had been found off shore and in the Angolan province of Cabinda. The relationship between South Africa, Namibia, Zaire, Zambia, and the U.S. played an important role. Understanding the different players and their attitudes and interests in Angola has been fascinating (and very complicated).

For any Michigander Gerald Ford is an important name. But his presidency has received little to no scholarly attention at all. He is often grouped in with the Presidency of Richard Nixon. The Cold War has been studied extensively, and proxy wars like the Vietnam War have received a lot of scholarly attention. The Angolan war, however, has not been studied with as much detail. In recent years there has been a push to study what is called the global Cold War. This refers to studying the Cold War as a global phenomenon, and not just as a conflict that took place between the Soviet Union and the United States. With my research, I hope to contribute to studying Gerald Ford and the global Cold War.

Thankfully, I have been able to conduct much of my research online. The Gerald R. Ford library in Ann Arbor has been digitizing a lot of their holdings. In a few weeks, however, I will be travelling to Ann Arbor. The library has awarded me a travel grant to further my research. I look forward to this opportunity. This research experience has been truly rewarding and challenging. To me, there are worse ways to spend my 2018 summer.

Feel free to contact me (haefn1jh[at]cmich.edu) if you have any questions or ideas.