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The Course Proposal: A How-To Guide for Grads
March 27, 2012 - 8:55pm


This is a GradHacker post by Amy Rubens, PhD candidate in English at Indiana University, @ambulantscholar

As a grad student, I’ve successfully proposed courses as part of applying for teaching opportunities within my home institution. I proposed and taught a thematic, first-year composition class for my home department three times. I proposed and taught an introductory medical humanities course for the Collins Living-Learning Center at my home institution. I won a teaching assistantship in the department where I earned my PhD minor, and proposing a summer course was a part of the application process. My success partly stems from being an instructor of record for seven years.  I’ve also been on the other side of the process: as a member of my department’s Composition Committee, I helped faculty to evaluate course proposals submitted by graduate students (but not in the same years mine were under consideration!).

I want to share some of what I’ve learned with other grads who may be asked to propose a course for teaching opportunities within their home department or institution. (To read about proposing courses within the context of the academic job market, see blogs posts by Dr. Karen Kelsky. Her “How to Describe a Course (In an Interview)” is helpful, too.)

CC-licensed photo by flickr user davidsilver

For the sake of expediency, I assume here that proposing a course involves creating a detailed syllabus. The meaning of “syllabus,” as several noted in response to an earlier GradHacker piece I wrote, can vary from instructor to instructor as well as across disciplines and institutions. In this context, I take “detailed syllabus” to mean the inclusion of a course description, list of required readings, weekly schedule (objectives, reading assignments, and other activities), and brief description of how students will be evaluated.

Read the guidelines, and ask questions. Just as the term “syllabus” is somewhat debatable, so is the concept of “detailed,” so make sure you understand what is being asked of you. Perhaps you are being asked to provide a daily, as opposed to a weekly, breakdown of activities. When I proposed a course for IU’s Collins Living-Learning Center, I was asked to include page numbers for all reading assignments so that reviewers could get a sense of the course’s reading load and distribution. Also, consider another similar situation: I was asked to propose a summer course when I applied for a teaching assistantship with my home institution's Department of American Studies, but IU summer courses vary in length: did the committee want me to propose an 8-week or 6-week course?

Know the target audience(s). While faculty and perhaps others (peers, undergraduates) will evaluate your course proposal, you are not writing to this audience alone.  Ultimately, you are creating a document that should speak to the needs and abilities of the students who might enroll in that course. For instance, if you are proposing a 100-level course for non-majors, then use language with a suitable level of technicality. Why? The course proposal not only demonstrates you can put together a coherent course of study; it also indicates (to a certain degree) your ability to effectively communicate the course material in the day-to-day teaching of the course. When I helped faculty in my department evaluate proposals for thematic, first-year composition courses submitted by my peers, we were skeptical of those that used graduate-level jargon. Not surprisingly, these courses often incorporated readings in ways that were not appropriate for a 100-level, composition course.

Start at the end instead of the beginning. In thinking about the trajectory of the course and smaller conceptual frameworks within it, try working backwards. By the end of the course or unit, what topics should students be able to discuss with greater ease? What skills should students master (or be competent in, depending on your pedagogical philosophy)? Address what needs to be read, studied, taught, and practiced in order to reach those goals, and do so by moving successively backwards. Granted, this tactic isn't a panacea, but it can be helpful in some contexts.

Make your choices explicit. It’s important to include a course description that addresses the rationale for the course and enumerates specific learning objectives. This material is placed at the beginning of the syllabus; however, I also like to make my reasoning explicit in other areas of the document. For example, if the course is divided into several units, I list one or two inquiry questions at the beginning of each section to highlight what students will be investigating or learning specifically. I also include a brief description of goals and activities for each week; a bulleted list can illustrate this material nicely. Also consider providing an overview of assignments or projects. If you plan to rely on exams to evaluate students, you could describe the exam structure and the rationale governing these choices. I typically place information about assignments at the end of the course schedule, but I note the presence of this material somewhere at the beginning of the proposal.

Pace readings appropriately. When you assign a reading and distribute it across calendar space, at what rate are you requiring students to move through material or concepts? Is the amount of time appropriate, given the complexity of the material and the level of the course?

Don’t ignore presentation or document design. Your proposal should not only be aesthetically-pleasing but also organized to maximize its rhetorical effectiveness.  Consider font type and size; spacing and"white space"; margin size; paragraph length;  and headings and sub-headings. Essentially, the document should be accessible. Does it invite reading, but also permit scanning? Can a reader find information quickly and by moving back and forth within the document? Those evaluating your proposal could have hundreds of documents to evaluate. If your document invites skimming, it has a greater chance of advancing to the next round of evaluation where it likely will be analyzed in more detail. When I helped to review course proposals, I never had more than 15 to evaluate at a give time, so I began by reading. Still, a poorly designed document reflects negatively on the instructor's potential to present material clearly in other contexts, such as assignment sheets or presentations.

My tips are by no means exhaustive. What can you add to this list? What have you done differently?




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