I’ve been working on syllabi this week. I’m the kind of guy that tends to continually tweak courses. Something in my nature makes it impossible for me to just settle on a particular scheme and stick with it for very many terms, even though I know there are multiple perfectly good ways to go (based on the fact that thousands of political science profs have their own variations on a course, and I can’t presume their approaches are inferior to mine). So I tweak, and I’m unsure whether I’m something of a perfectionist or just a compulsive tweaker.

My struggle this term has been my presidency class. It’s a class I generally only teach every other year, so each time I come back to it there’s been a long layoff, and I have to study the syllabus just to figure out what I was up to the last time; what I was trying to accomplish in the class. Last time I was supposed to teach it I was on sabbatical, so it’s been 3 1/2 years now since I taught it, which compounded the problem.

Beyond that, it’s one of the courses I’ve designated as writing intensive. One of our collegiate rules is that each student take a sophomore level writing intensive course. This means a minimum of 20 pages of writing, but with lots of rewriting and workshopping instead of just one big paper due at the end of the term. But that cuts into the time available for content. I was assured by the folks who ran the training program I had to go through that the writing elements didn’t have to affect content, but that’s nonsense. Since I don’t think the writing component of the class went well last time, I’m putting more time into it now, and that means even more content that has to be cut. I chose this course to use as a writing intensive course specifically because I thought it was better suited to being taught well with less content, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easier to decide which content to cut.

In addition to that, I’ve added a bit of content. First, this book on different ideological approaches to the presidency came to me courtesy of the publisher, and I decided it was valuable enough to add. It consists of chapters by a liberal, a moderate, a conservative, a libertarian, a pro-unitary presidency person, and a couple others, each arguing for their vision of the presidency. I think it will help students put the popular debate about the presidency into better context. Second, I’m increasing the amount of time spent on the growth in presidential power and the weakening of congressional and judicial checks on the executive, with particular emphasis on Bush and Obama. I’m pleased with adding both those elements, but it means something else has to go.

So I’m assigning fewer chapters from the main text. That’s tricky, both because I think those chapters are valuable enough to warrant inclusion, and because students don’t like being required to buy a book if only a small part of it is used for the class. I think I’m keeping enough chapters from it to ward off that complaint, but we’ll see. And I had to sort of hold my breath while cutting them.

This takes a surprisingly long amount of time. I find myself re-skimming chapters and articles, trying to figure out how (or if they fit into the overall scheme and how high their informational value ranks in comparison to the other things to be read. That was three full days of work.

Fortunately that was my hardest one. My American Gov’t syllabus will have very minor tweaking this term, adjusting the value of some assignments I’d overweighted and moving the due date of the term paper. My Research Methods syllabus will require a little bit more effort. I need to add in more attention to analysis that I’d dropped the last couple of times to focus more on in-class hands-on working with the methods. But dropping the analysis hurt the course; students learned how to collect data, but not what to do with it. I think I’m going to try to keep the hands-on, laboratory style, approach while giving more time to analysis, which means something else has to go, and that’s going to be lecture time. A lecture approach to research methods is a useless way to teach the course anyway, as I learned the first few times I taught it; it’s just hard to give that up when I have all this information I want them to gather, and the fastest way to deliver it is by telling it to them. But without application, it just doesn’t stick. So it’s a fast delivery method, but a very inefficient one. Anyway, it’s pretty clear I’ll be working on that syllabus over the weekend if I want to get it finished in time.

Especially if I keep taking breaks from that drudgery to blog.

About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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11 Responses to Syllabi

  1. Phil says:

    Thanks for this peak into the process. Interesting.

  2. James Hanley says:

    I remember from my days as a student that they never have any idea how much work goes into it. The quality of a good syllabus, I think, goes almost unnoticed. It’s only buggy ones that are actually going to cause students to pause and think about it. So the better I do at the process, the less students are given any reason to think about the process!

    It’s worth adding that the current trend in syllabus making by people who style themselves professionals in this sort of thing is to make them longer and longer. For some people, a 10 page syllabus has become standard. They have pages and pages of explanations, discussions of learning styles, etc., etc. I’m pretty convinced students are so daunted by those syllabi that they don’t read them. I keep mine short, primarily policies and schedule, and everything I else I hand out individually at appropriate times (which gives those other things the appearance of being more special, and more worthy of attention–but poorer students will still not read them). Students seem to appreciate the shorter syllabi, so I’m going to stick with that practice.

  3. AMW says:

    My syllabus tweaking typically takes the form of changing the dates on the schedule of topics.

  4. Dr X says:

    It sounds like a really interesting course.

  5. Lance says:


    “My syllabus tweaking typically takes the form of changing the dates on the schedule of topics.”


    I just cut and pasted my Pre-Calc/Trig syllabus onto the university website.

    I was surprised to see that the university has declared the latter half of Superbowl week a holiday.

    I guess since IUPUI is a downtown campus here in Indianapolis they are preparing for the onslaught of partying football junkies.

    I think the day after the Superbowl should be a national holiday. A day for winners to revel in victory, losers to assuage the pain of defeat and all to nurse hang-overs and de-bloat from junk food overdose.

  6. James Hanley says:

    I think IUPUI may have made a wise choice. I would think it’s definitely too close to the stadium not to be affected by the traffic.

    And I envy you, too. Although how much variation can there really be in a pre-calc syllabus? The problem with much of what I teach is that it just doesn’t have the same kind of structure as the math/science kind of stuff does, or even as micro and macro-econ do. American gov’t isn’t so bad, and that syllabus generally only changes at the margins, but presidency offers a kind of smorgasboard–pick and choose what bits you want to put in, and while you could certainly create a really confusing sequence with no difficulty, creating a sequence that builds in the way a math class does is not really an available option.

    Research methods does build, thank god, but it’s been a process of experimentation to figure out how to fit in everything that needs to fit in while finding time to make it hands-on instead of just a rushed lecture course. And I forgot to mention that I had to add in human-subjects research training this year, so students would be certified for that when they get to their capstone course. And now my college wants to reduce that course from 4 credit hours to 3 credit hours.

  7. AMW says:

    So, Dr. Hanley, when are you going to start weighing in on the GOP primaries?


  8. James Hanley says:

    I’ve had a couple thoughts, not so much about the horse race as about process. I’ll maybe post something over the weekend.

  9. Lance says:

    The picture should clear considerably after the South Carolina primary on Tuesday.

  10. James Hanley says:

    I think the picture’s already clear. The interesting question is about the anomalous process this time around.

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