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.