Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 31: A Personalized Syllabus Checklist (draft)

One of the great things about being a new professor is the opportunity to teach a variety of new classes: graduate students usually teach only introductory or composition classes. But new courses of course means new syllabi. This week I’m putting together a syllabus for a summer course, and I realize that when designing a class I focus almost entirely on assessments and assignments. Less interesting (but not less important) elements of the syllabus get pushed to the background: things like logistics and course policies. I realized this semester, when a student didn’t turn in an assignment, that my usual “late work policy” didn’t make it onto my syllabus. Oops.

Taking a cue from airline pilots, astronauts, and surgeons, I’ve been thinking about using a checklist to ensure that, when I create a new syllabus, it has all the components I know it needs.

Apollo 17 Lunar Surface Checklist

If you’ve watched television or read a book review in the last three years, you’ve likely heard about Atul Gawande’s Checklist Manifesto, which has received a lot of popular press attention. The idea is a pretty simple one: certain tasks — like flying a plan or performing surgery — are very complicated, with lots of room for mistakes. Using a checklist can help experts ensure that they apply their knowledge to every task, and don’t make simple errors. Syllabus construction is, admittedly, not as high-stakes as landing on the moon. Still, it’s a complicated task with lots of components. A checklist can help ensure they’re all there.

I’m of course not the first person to think of this idea, and just a quick Google search will give you several syllabus checklists, for example from the teaching center at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Minnesota’s faculty senate (both rather barebones lists). The best I’ve seen is from the University of Pittsburgh, which in addition to being fairly comprehensive, allows you to literally check off each item. But I wanted something a bit more specific, tailored to the kinds of assignments I tend to use and to my own teaching philosophies (I believe, for example, that students need to turn in a graded assignment within the first week or two: this allows me to gauge where they are, and gives them a sense of how they will be graded). So here’s a draft of the list I came up with.

Logistics and Basics

___ Course title, semester, meeting time and place
___ My name, email address, and office hours
___ Required texts (are Kindle or electronic editions OK? Where are the books available?)
___ Program requirements (is the course a gen ed? Part of a writing program? Are there external criteria it needs to meet?)

Course Policies

___ Late work policy (penalty?)
___ Attendance policy (how many allowed? Penalty?)
___ Participation guidelines (or indication that a detailed rubric will be provided)
___ Department or university requirements (e.g. honor code, accommodations for students with disabilities, etc.)

Assignments and Assessments

___ Learning goals (I usually have about three, such as: write clearly and persuasively; read closely, paying attention to syntax, genre, authorial style, etc.; use course vocabulary; develop a historical perspective; engage with scholarly discourse; develop a technical skill [e.g. updating Wikipedia])

Note: In my composition classes, I break down the writing tasks: introduce a paper that motivates the reader; support a claim with evidence; build a logical argument; engage with other writers; etc. For these classes, I reiterate the relevant learning goals below each assignment, when it’s listed in the schedule.

___ Grading rubric (include participation)
___ An early low stakes assignment (worth no more than 5% of the course grade)
___ Details about major assignments: due dates, word counts (rather than page counts)
___ Final paper/portfolio/project/exam: when will it be? Will students need to show up for the scheduled exam time?

Schedule of readings and assignments

___ Manageable reading assignment for each day (depends on the course)
___ Longer readings saved for weekends; shorter readings when there’s only a day between classes
___ Lighter reading assigned the weeks when students are also working on papers or exams
___ Manageable reading load in last two weeks (when students are likely very busy?)

Do you use a checklist when you create a syllabus, or do you have another method of making sure everything gets on there? Is there anything you think is missing from this list? Let me know in the comments.

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