Syllabi are often bland and administrative documents—filled with lists of texts, deadlines, policies, and requirements, but with little to say about the actual intellectual work of a course.

I want my course materials to offer students a fuller sense of who I am as a writer and thinker. One way I begin to do so is through writing a brief piece describing my aims for the course and how I hope to see the semester unfold.( On the site for my Fall 2016 writing course, this piece appears on the About and What to Expect pages.) In talking with other teachers I’ve come across a number of labels for this sort of piece: course plan, narrative, agenda, overview, etc. But I think they all have the same goal: To describe a course in intellectual rather than bureaucratic terms.

I think you need to do at least two things in this sort of opening statement:

  • Define the issues and questions that will drive the work of the course: For instance, in the About page for my course I tell students that I want them to do the sort of critical work modeled by Elizabeth Spelman in her book Repair.
  • Offer a sense of how the course will play out over time: What will you begin the semester by doing together? What projects will follow? How will you finish up? How do the various parts of the course connect? What’s its arc?

Well, and maybe a third thing, too: This is a chance for you to set a tone, to present yourself as someone other than the person who will take attendance, grade papers, and exact penalties for late work, to offer your students a sense of who you are as a writer, intellectual, and teacher.

I’ll ask you to draft a course overview for our seminar meeting on Tuesday, 6/06. Aim for about 500 words or so. (Feel free to re-use some of the language of the course description you sent in with your application for the Koshland fellowship.) We will workshop these overviews, along with your writing projects, in seminar on Wednesday, 6/07. Please bring five print copies with you.