Overview

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

But I want my materials to offer students a sense of who I am as a writer and thinker. One way I’ve found of doing so is by writing a brief prose piece describing my aims for the course and how I hope to see the semester unfold. In talking about this sort of piece with other teachers, I’ve come across a number of labels for it: course plan, course overview, course narrative. (In my course site for Spring 2016, you’ll find this piece in About This Section, and to some degree, in What to Expect.) But I think they all try to get at the same thing: You want to write a brief piece of prose, addressed to your students, about the work you hope to do with them in the coming semester.

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

  • Define the key issues and questions that will drive the work you’re doing together. (For instance, I begin my overview by asking: “How do we write without arguing?”)
  • Describe the narrative of the semester: What will you begin the term 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 to students as someone other than the person who will take attendance and exact penalties for late work. Show students who you are as a writer, intellectual, and teacher.

I’ll ask you to draft a course overview for our seminar meeting on Tuesday, 6/07. 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, 6/08/2016. Pleas bring five print copies with you.