You Want It When?

Rob Weir explains how to design a course when you don't have much time.

June 16, 2010

How did Robert Burns put it? "The best laid plans o’ mice and an’ men/Gang aft-a-gley." When I graded my last final I thought I’d have a reasonably relaxed summer. My preliminary fall schedule consisted of courses I had taught recently, so all I needed to do was order some books, update the syllabuses, and improve a few lessons that had listed toward the mediocre side of the intellectual deck last time through. I could spend the rest of my summer doing research, revising some journal articles, reading, and maybe even spending some serious hammock time. Hah!

One phone call later, and I’m facing one updated and two new courses, one of which needed to go into the university’s computer system less than 48 hours after I was told about it. This required a new course description, a detailed syllabus, and a rationale for why the course was being listed as a four-credit general-education class. Did I mention I had no idea that this course was being made a four-credit gen-ed offering?

If you’re a new hire for fall, all of your courses will be new and you’re probably not feeling much sympathy for me. Fair enough, but let me caution that the pressure you’re currently feeling isn’t unusual. In an ideal world, every new course we teach would be the product of deep cogitation and meticulous preparation, perhaps after some release time to develop it. Dream on.

When you least expect it, administrative wheels that appeared permanently mired in mud have a tendency to spin out like a teen behind the wheel of a refurbished T-Bird. When this happens — as it does with shockingly unpredictable regularity — you have to deliver in a hurry goods that weren’t even in your consciousness a few blissful days earlier.

So what do you do if you have to plan fast and fly by the seat of your pants? The first step is to produce what I was required to crank out quickly: a course description, a syllabus, and a rationale. That’s right — what might seem like "administrivia" is very important. Consider the course description. Most course titles are impossibly broad: Molecular Biology, Introduction to Computer Programming, Macroeconomics, World History Since 1500…. Oh, is that all? When you write a course description, you must reduce infinite possibilities to just a few sentences. View this as an act of distillation that imposes parameters of intelligibility.

One of my new courses is titled "Social Change in the Sixties." Just a decade, right? Piece of cake. Well … not really. Writing the course description made me confront several questions that are essential to putting together the course: How will I define the period chronologically? What makes this period different from its predecessors and how will I explain that? What is meant by social change? How many social change movements can I consider without sacrificing depth for breadth? What are the essential concepts that students need to grasp? What are the best delivery systems for teaching the material?

The course description helps you whittle down the course to doable size. Write it before you attempt to assemble a syllabus. I have written before on the importance of the syllabus — see "Dancing with Kate Smith" — so let me add just a few things that relate specifically to preparing a new course quickly. The very first thing you should do is get your hands on existing syllabuses for your course or those that cover similar topics. If anyone has taught the course before, your department secretary is likely to have a copy of it. Contact friends and colleagues whom you know to have expertise in the area, and don’t be afraid to approach professors you don’t know personally — most are quite happy to share syllabuses and the worst that can happen is a curt refusal. Check out online discussion groups for your area as many maintain syllabus banks. Also search academic sites for your discipline. Alas, the sources least likely to be helpful are those called "syllabus finders." There were a few good ones for a time, but most are out of order now because of Google coding issues, and the vast majority are specific to their host universities, seldom get updated, or simply direct you to empty templates. Your best bet for finding useful syllabuses is to network in the old-fashioned way.

You might also want to grab a textbook — not necessarily to assign it, but to see the breakdown of topics. Before you start preparing anything, decide (at least roughly) on the topics you wish to cover and the order in which they’ll go. Texts are great at organizing (even when they’re so dull that no undergrad would ever read them) and will help you make structural choices.

After you’ve sketched out your topics, go back to your course description and make sure those topics are consistent with how you defined the course. Refine one or the other as necessary, and proceed to choosing course materials. Select any books you intend to use and order them ASAP — things go wrong in book ordering, so give yourself time to adjust. I always check to see if books I’m considering are in print. I use it rather than Amazon for several reasons. First, some of my students will order online even though all my materials will be available in a local bookstore; if students use Barnes and Noble rather than Amazon they can go to a bricks-and-mortar store if there’s a problem. Second, I use the B&N site because it’s easier to navigate — you can get ISBN numbers and other pertinent info quicker and you don’t have to get past the toasters, TVs, cameras, and toys to get to the books.

If you’ve got a course description, a list of topics, and materials you’re almost ready to start assembling the syllabus and actual classes. I’d suggest one final step: write a course rationale. Think of this as akin to what secondary school teachers call "learning objectives." What’s the purpose of the course? What do you want students to know when they’ve completed it? (Think of these as take-away messages, if you will.) How will you assess whether they’ve learned it?

The answers to these questions should determine the content of each individual lesson, the concepts related to the content, and the methods used to impart them. In other words, there’s no sense in writing a lecture on a topic if a hands-on lab teaches the concept better. By the same token, it’s futile to design a lab or discussion if the success of such exercises requires skills or concepts students probably don’t possess. Decide how you’re going to teach a given topic before you develop the content. (I’ve opted for a combination of lecture, discussion, individual research, and critical media viewing in my class.)

If all of the above seem like time wasted that could have been devoted to content preparation, think of what you’d advise an undergrad planning a project. Wouldn’t you tell him or her that preliminary thinking and planning are the handmaidens of efficiency, and that efficiency is crucial when time is limited? Don’t we also tell students that they can’t answer every question, discuss every issue, or give definitive answers? Such is the case for each of us when we must hastily assemble a course. What we don’t tell undergrads is what veteran instructors know — no matter how long you have to prepare your class, you probably won’t feel like you’re in your best groove until you’re teaching it for the third time. My motto is one I stole and modified from the U.S. Army: Be all that you can be (given the time and resources available).

P.S.: Anyone who wants my (working) Social Change syllabus can e-mail me and I’ll be happy to send it!


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