Creating Your Archive

For the past week, we’ve been discussing how to create your syllabus. We’ve covered what type of document a syllabus is, what types of policies to include, and why assessment is so important.

Today, we are going to discuss a couple of different approaches to choosing what your students will read over the course of the semester. As brilliantly summed up over at McSweeney’s, this can be difficult because it asks you to think four months into the future about what a group of people you haven’t even met yet will be doing.

There are three basic ways to choose the readings for your syllabus and they vary depending on your confidence level and the how large your class is.

Copy and Paste

If this is (a) your first time teaching or (b) your first time teaching in a new discipline one of the best methods for choosing your readings is to copy and paste.

Yeah, you read that right.

People put syllabi online for a lot of reasons. Some people do it because of a commitment to the idea that knowledge should be open access. Some people do it out of a sense of collegiality. Some people do it because their departments make them. Whatever the reason a simple Google search of “[Class] syllabus” should yield plenty of results. From there, it’s pretty straightforward: scan the syllabi, see what you like, copy and paste the readings to your own syllabus.

If it’s possible for you, consider implementing this method with syllabi from your own department. That is, if you are teaching a class that generations of graduate students have taught before you inquire whether or not the department has the previous syllabi. Often, even if the department does not keep a record, they can put you in contact with previous instructors who will send you the syllabi they used (again, that whole collegiality thing).

One final note about copy and paste: This is one of the many times in graduate school where knowing what you don’t want to do is just as important as knowing what you do want to do.

The first time I taught a course for which I got to make the syllabus was the Spring of 2013. In the Fall of 2012 I had TAed for a professor teaching the same course. I used her syllabus but made edits based on what I had seen work in the previous semester. I later found out that the professor’s syllabus had been put together by her for her graduate students. I choose to see this as an illustration of how syllabi are always a collaborative effort. It’s not the role of a syllabus to be original or groundbreaking. Just make it good.

Four Quarters

If you feel confident enough to make your syllabus from scratch and have a fairly large class (about 35 students or more) then the four quarters method is a great option.

The four quarters are:

  • The Canon–approximately one-quarter of the texts in your syllabus should be the canon texts–those authors and texts that are foundational to your discipline.
  • The Favorites–these are the ones you really love. They might not be considered canon but they are your personal must-reads.
  • The Terrible–A very important, too often overlooked, part of choosing readings is including some readings that are flawed in methodology, conclusions, or writing.
  • The Other–These are readings selected by your guest lecturers.

In terms of where these should fall in your syllabus, the canon readings will be frontloaded. The job of the intro courses most graduate students teach is to introduce students to the canon but it’s also to teach students critical thinking. I like to put these texts upfront so we can spend the rest of the semester critiquing them.

As the canon readings taper off the rest of the readings will be a mix of the other three categories. I’m sure you could defend all of the reasons why your favs should be in the syllabus so I won’t waste time on that.

Why include bad readings? Well, partly because no discipline is perfect. We all have our fair share of bad authors, bad arguments, bad methods, and bad conclusions. Being honest that some of the scholarly work in your field is just plain bad is important if you’re really trying to give students a sense of the history and breadth of the subject. In addition, including a couple of terrible readings can help students sharpen their critical thinking skills. Often, the first time I assign a terrible reading students aren’t sure what to do. They have a default assumption that if I assign it in the syllabus then I must endorse it in some way and are, therefore, hesitant to criticize it. When I tear the reading apart in front of them their relief is palable. It’s often a big moment in the development of the classroom community in terms of letting students know that there are no sacred bulls. After this moment class conversations get a lot more honest and, honestly, a lot smarter. (Hint: Every discipline has at least one genuinely terrible canon piece. I generally like to tear that piece apart.)

Finally, don’t forget to include some guest lecturers in your syllabus. I’m 1000% sure you know some graduate students doing great work on something being covered in your syllabus. Invite them to come share it. It’s a good opportunity for them to practice presenting their work, especially if they are relatively new. It is also an excellent opportunity to observe different teaching styles from more senior colleagues. And, of course, if you need someone to guest lecture about virginity–hit me up.


This final method only works if your class is relatively small. I wouldn’t try it with a class above 30 people but it’s also my favorite way of creating a syllabus. In this method, I create the first month of readings–things the students absolutely have to know–but that’s it. Then I spend the first week of class co-creating the rest of the reading list with the class by discussing what’s important to them and what they want to learn.

I use this method when I teach Intro to LGBT Studies because it’s a smaller class and because it’s so deeply personal for most participants. This has lead to some vastly different syllabi for the same course. For instance, one class wanted to focus on activism and the next year’s class wanted to focus on understanding LGBT history. While these two syllabi overlapped in some places they were, overall, very different. Importantly, they both reflected the interests of the class and students were engaged because they helped create the syllabus.

In this method the students don’t actually suggest a lot of the readings. Instead, you spend time getting to know the students and what they want to learn and what they already know. Then you put together a list of readings based on those interests.

While this type of pedagogy and syllabus creation isn’t for everyone when it works it is phenomenal.

If you have a tried-and-true method of selecting your course readings that doesn’t fit into one of these categories then let us know in the comments!






Of Syllabi and Self-Confidence

This month we are tackling teaching and, as is only appropriate, we will begin with how to make a syllabus and end with how to interpret course evaluations.

First things first, making a syllabus is harder than you think it is.

The root of this problem, as with many of the teaching-related issues we’ll discuss this month, is that no one teaches you how to teach.

The traditional assumption is that you have been a serious student for many years, over a decade, and that you have lots of experience with how to learn as a student. Therefore, since you know how to learn you must know how to teach.

This assumption is flawed.

Knowing how to critique the way something is built is not the same as knowing how to build a better version of it.

As a student, you have lots of experience critiquing syllabi and teaching methods. While knowing what not to do is important it is not the same as knowing what to do.

Syllabi are the sonnets of higher education–a strict form that can facilitate a breathtaking amount of creativity and beauty.

When making the syllabus for your class it’s important to remember that there are a lot of things you have to include. At my most recent institution syllabi were required to have the college’s “classroom civility” policy and the university’s “honor pledge” which was a rhyming couplet about not plagiarizing. It was also strongly recommended that all syllabi contain the phrase, “This syllabus is subject to change.”

These phrases, and others like them, need to be included because administrators view the syllabus as a contract between the university and the student. Students can, and have, sued universities over breach of contract due to syllabus alterations or information that ought to be obvious (e.g. plagiarism is bad) not being explicitly spelled out.

That’s why syllabi tend to follow such a strict form–legally, it’s a contract so you need contractual language in it.

The creativity flourishes in all of the places that are shaped by your pedagogy. In addition to the actual course material this can be the type of assignments you grade, how you grade them, or even your attendance policy.

Tomorrow, I’ll share with you one of my favorite syllabi clauses which you should feel free to copy and paste into your syllabus, if you like it. On Sunday, I’ll share a couple of my favorite assignments, which you should also feel free to copy, if you like.

For now, though, I want to speak to any readers who are putting together a syllabus for the first time. Even if you are at an institution that provides some form of training there is something altogether different about sitting down to write your first syllabus.

For one thing, it’s more difficult than it seems to know what you want students to be reading over 3 months from now.

The deeper difficulty with writing your syllabus, however, is that it can precipitate an acute bout of imposter syndrome. Every single time I have sat down to write a syllabus I have had a paralyzing moment where I ask the universe, “Who the fuck am I to teach anyone anything? I had cookie dough for breakfast and never make my bed and why would anyone think they could learn anything from me? I’m a mess and a fraud and these students are going to know it from this terrible syllabus!”

Every. Single. Time.

And do you know what?

The syllabus always comes together and I have yet to be called a fraud by a student.

I think there’s something about this syllabus panic that is, in its own perverse way, a good sign.

The process of getting a PhD is one of continued specialization. You know more and more about a very narrow range of things. As this happens, you simultaneously become more and more aware of how very much you don’t know and will never know.

But that isn’t a flaw. That’s just being human.

You may not be an expert on every subject your course will cover–you may be learning right along with your students. That’s fine.

What you do know is how to learn.

Your job isn’t to be the expert in the room on every single topic. Your job is to teach them how to learn. You are the expert on how to learn because you have more experience than they do in how to study, how to critique, how to hypothesize, and how to make connections.

You are not offering them perfection, but rather a model of best practices of how to learn.

Viewed in that light, the weeks that are not in your specialty can be some of the best weeks for teaching because they are the weeks when you can best model how to learn for and with your students.

Remember, you absolutely deserve to be here. You can do this thing.

If all else fails, remember the sage advice of my ultimate teaching mentor, Dr. Mardia Bishop, “You only ever need to be one day ahead of the students. If you’re a week ahead they’ll think you’re God.”