Diary of a Visiting Assistant Professor, week 4. I relearn an important lesson about syllabi

One of the things you come to learn, when teaching your first few standalone classes, is how much (or, more accurately, how little) material you can cover during class time. I worked for the Teaching Resource Center as a graduate student, and consulted both formally and informally about putting together syllabi. I was told, and I told many others, to assign about half of what you initially think you’ll assign. I still, of course, like everyone else, assigned way too much in my first few classes. But by the time I received my PhD, I felt I had a pretty good grasp of what students could handle in 50 or 75 minutes. I kept that in mind when designing my syllabi for this semester. My philosophy has always been to assign just a little bit too much: I want students to struggle a bit, and I want there to be something left over that we didn’t get to talk about (leaving students something for their papers.)

This semester, though, I’m teaching two sections of the same course, a survey of 18th- and 19th-century British literature. One of the sections meets three times a week, for 50 minutes: the dynamic is familiar, and while we never cover everything I assign, we get through most of it. The other section, though, meets just once a week. I assigned the same texts, thinking that since the class is three times as long, we’d cover three times as much material. I was wrong. Very. And I should have known better.

Here’s what classes looked like for my thrice-weekly class, for example:

  • Wednesday, August 29 – eighteenth-century essays: Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and a handful of essays from the Spectator.
  • Friday, August 31 – Biography: Johnson’s Rambler 60 and a 30-page chunk of Boswell’s Life of Johnson
  • Monday, September 3: no class, labor day
  • Wednesday, September 5 – Fiction: Johnson’s Rambler 4, Haywood’s Fantomina, and Fielding’s Shamela (admittedly a busy day, but they had the long weekend to do the reading).
  • Friday, September 7 – Equiano, selection from the Interesting Narrative

This if all fine, and for each of these classes the reading was manageable. But it worked out that the reading for my once a week class was all of those texts at once. Which means nine different authors to keep straight, not to mention different kinds of essays, prose fictions, and biographies.

This week I tried something different in the once-a-week class. We read Gray’s “Elegy” and selections from Lyrical Ballads (several poems and the preface) and from Biographia Literaria. I gave two short lectures (one on Gray, and one on the prose defenses Wordsworth and Coleridge give of their poetry). Then we spend about an hour on “Tintern Abbey” (after the first short lecture) and about an hour on “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (after the second). It meant the other poems got only brief mention, but the poems we did cover were given there due.

Next week we’re reading Blake, Byron, Keats, and Shelley, and I’ve told students to focus on a few specific poems (or, in Byron’s case, stanzas of Don Juan). I’ll be revising the syllabus and cutting down some of the readings for later in the semester. It’s never to late to fix this kind of issue, I say, and better to give full attention to fewer works than sparse attention to lots.


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