What to know before you write a syllabus: Some loving advice.

In my second semester of graduate school, I learned that syllabus writing is hard. I’d signed up for a class (technically an independent study, though there were four or five of us who would meet weekly, usually without a professor present) that was well outside my comfort zone.  It was a class on Islam in Africa, and all the other students were historians of either East or West Africa in the advanced stages of preparing for comps.  Still, I’d taken a few classes on Islam in undergrad, and I was a religious studies major—I didn’t feel totally out of my depth. Our final assignment for the course was to design a syllabus.  It was a great experience—I’m really glad to have done it so early in my graduate career—but it was definitely rough going.

Syllabus writing is hard for many reasons.  To put it bluntly, a syllabus is an exercise is branding.  It’s a venue for your values as a scholar, and a way to actually do something about all the stuff you’ve been complaining about in seminars.  Which, by the way…let’s just say that it’s never too early to get some perspective on the graduate seminar phenomenon.  They’re not useless; they can  be fantastic under the right circumstances, but the nervous energy of a gaggle of impostor syndrome-addled graduate students should never be underestimated.  If you aren’t careful you might find that instead of learning how to be a historian (or a practitioner of whatever it is you study), you’ve spent two years learning to absolutely crush seminar discussions—which is not the same thing.  The latter generally entails a lot of complaining about what the author omitted, about citations, about methodology, et cetera.  But do you have a better idea?  Without having your own published monograph, a syllabus is where you put your money where your mouth is, as it were.

Are the canonical sources too uncritical of [blank]?  Cut ‘em.  Is it a problem that the vast majority of Africanist historians cited in the West are white non-Africanists?  Screw ‘em, assign some African voices, some primary sources, some queer scholars.  It’s your call.  It’s your time to shine.  It’s all wonderfully open-ended too—are you pissed that your undergrad Africa survey never mentioned Madagascar?  Do a unit on Madagascar.  You can make it work.

But making bold choices like that invites second guessing.  Fifteen weeks seems like a long time when the syllabus is blank, but it fills up quickly.  I used to think it was a cop-out in undergrad when professors admitted up-front that their survey wasn’t going to be “comprehensive” and some worthy topics were going to get the shaft; now, from the other side of the desk, I realize I was wrong to be so critical.  There really are limitations on what you can get to in a single semester, and the more you value getting students to really grapple with the past and think about cases in more depth, the more limited you’ll feel.  Some topics and sources won’t make the final cut, and not only will you be pissed, but you’ll also have to take responsibility for it.

You have serious limitations too. Unless you’re able to design a course exclusively around your research interests (something I don’t think many people would recommend, even if it were possible), you’re going to have to spend a good chunk of the course covering material you’re not really an expert in.  Islam in Africa was a case-in-point for me: I know a heck of a lot more about it than the average undergrad, but much less than someone who studies precolonial Senegal or Zanzibar.  When you’re gathering sources it can seem overwhelming, because you probably won’t know many names beyond the blockbusters, let alone the way their work has been received and debated.  And if you worry about your expertise when it comes to your own dissertation topic, how much more phoney is your command of the Trans-Saharan slave trade in the fifteenth century?

The biggest problem of all, though, is the literature itself.  As you seek out readings to fill your blank syllabus, you’ll probably have some faves in mind that were always going to make the cut.  As you continue, though, your well-honed grad seminar senses will be tingling like crazy as the shortcomings of the books and articles you find become manifest.  You’ll find that many of the sources you wish were out there just don’t exist, and that the ones that do are deeply flawed.  Worse, you’ll find that a lot of the sources you might use are totally inappropriate for undergraduate students, which is a special kind of disappointment.  You might push back on this, thinking you can hold your students to a higher standard—and you might be able to!  It depends heavily on your ability and the nature of the class you’re designing, but obviously the definitive test is whether students actually read what you assign.  If they have a low threshold for abstruse scholarly prose, they might just be apathetic. 

Of course, it also might be true that said prose is simply bad.  We academics put up with a lot of bad writing.  When we write, most of us spend our time thinking about our colleagues rather than the public, which is fine except when you have to convince the public (your students) that the material is worthwhile.

So how does one do it? There’s no magic bullet, but I would start by setting a series of goals for the course: what do you want students to get out of it? Some of the goals should relate to specific content (i.e., colonialism was bad) and some should relate more generally to the discipline. Why is history so important? Why is it necessary to approach sources critically? How do historical narratives get pressed into the service of oppression and resistance? The case studies you choose can then illustrate these broader ideas. To expand on George Orwell’s famous axiom from 1984, all debates over the future are really struggles for control of the past. If my students take nothing else away from my class, that’s the message I would want them to take away. Syllabus writing teaches you how that sausage might be made.

I haven’t even gotten to discussing ways students can demonstrate their learning to you through exams and projects. Designing assignments isn’t as laborious as populating your syllabus with readings and lectures, but it’s every bit as important. Again, your process here should be shaped by your overall goals. I’m a big believer in mixing small items like reading quizzes in among bigger essay style assignments, because as important as the big takeaway lessons are, it’s impossible to learn meaningfully about History writ-large without mastering the nuts and bolts of particular cases. I think group projects can be valuable, but their burden tends to fall disproportionately on stronger students, and I don’t think I would ever design a syllabus with a group component of more than 30% of the final grade (I also totally reject self and group evaluation assignments; in my experience they are basically useless and place students in an inherently uncomfortable position).

So there you have it: perhaps this advice isn’t quite as “targeted” as it might be, but this is the kind of thing I wish I had read before embarking on my first syllabus writing journey. Set goals, be realistic, and don’t underestimate the difficulty. As always, drop a comment if you found this post helpful, or to suggest a topic for another post! I’m currently in South Africa starting in on my dissertation research, but I’ll still be posting content as often as I can.