The Thing You Must Do

Over at The Edge of the American West, a cautionary tale for those of you being interviewed for academic jobs this season.

A basic part of your preparation for any interview should be the preparation of a couple of syllabi to include in your packet (not your initial application for a post, but a follow-up for when you’re asked to come for a screening interview). At least one of those syllabi should be your approach to a bread-and-butter undergraduate survey of your major field of specialization, and one should be the most imaginative or interesting topical course for undergraduates you can think of. I don’t think you necessarily need a graduate-level syllabus, but you should have some idea of what graduate-level teaching you’d like to do.

I’m not likely to ever put this idea into practice myself, but I still think that the absolute best way to do a graduate-level seminar in a specialized field would be to spend the semester (or year) collectively building 2-3 syllabi for undergraduate teaching in that field and reading all the works which might potentially be included in those syllabi. All the students would end up with some syllabi to work from, they’d be able to talk about pedagogy in a usefully intellectualized context, and it would focus the conversation away from the kind of snide one-upmanship that graduate seminars have a tendency to devolve into.

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6 Responses to The Thing You Must Do

  1. petercarrjones says:

    I actually sort of did the last suggestion as part of a graduate seminar- The second half of US historiography (1815-Present). We read requisite monographs, articles, etc. covering the period over the semester, but instead of writing the same old historiography paper we got to create a course syllabi on a topic of our choosing that at least overlapped the chronological and geographic area. We needed to include some reference to the works we’d read or historiography in general, and we needed to explain our decisions in a short paper (~10 pages). It really got the class energized to think more about what we want others to know about our subjects and about pedagogical issues. It’s one thing to imagine which books are important to a topic and another to assign a rational number of pages a week, with writing assignments and other assessments (of course, it’s another thing to actually use such a syllabus in class. People were excited enough that we even spent extra class time presenting our syllabi and getting feedback from the class.

    Some of the courses were interesting- the second half of the US Survey as viewed through Chicago, Nuclear America: All things nuclear in America from the Manhattan Project on- looking at culture, foreign relations, politics, military, social history. Others were more esoteric- a legal history of US urban/housing policy. My course taught the Long Civil Rights Movement with a focus on primary source accounts and cultural productions (my thoughts: get them hooked).

  2. north says:

    Dear Prof. Burke:

    Please immediately transfer to a political science graduate program. Preferably one I have already applied to and which is planning to accept me.


  3. aprudy says:

    This is largely what we were encouraged to do for our Comps at UCSC… the idea was to show that you had mastered three components of the discipline to the extent that you could easily generate an undergraduate course. Many folks then organized their lists and statements to easily translate into just such a course.
    The tough thing is to figure out if, as an applicant, you should tweak the syllabus in a manner so as to make is institution-specific. For example, a syllabus appropriate to Swarthmore, Penn or the like would be inappropriate for Michigan State, Central Michigan or even Calvin College. Finding the line between pushing students and their level of prior preparation can be brutal.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Right. My thought is that a “syllabus literacy” would include several different kinds of institutionally-appropriate designs: what texts would you use in an adult-enrichment course at a community college? for a topical class at a selective liberal arts college? for a bread-and-butter survey class in a public R1? etc.

  5. Carl says:

    Totally! So important to know your audience. For a search a while ago I read an application from the hot newbie out of my grad program. All of the materials focused on a stellar future as a high-level scholar, but there was absolutely no evidence from the candidate or recommenders of teaching experience, interest, or thought.

    Well, at my school, a nice regional slac, we likes us a bit of research now and then, but what we mostly do is teach students, many of them with indifferent academic skills and dispositions. So we want scholarly competence but what we’re looking for first is some evidence that a candidate can hit the ground running on job 1, which means among other things a syllabus that speaks to real student populations rather than grad seminar snobfests.

  6. nord says:

    Well, you’re on break, but I couldn’t resist, from the BBC:

    Swat diary: ‘Taleban rule now’

    Munir (not his real name), an administrator in the Swat region south-west of Philadelphia [sic], describes the challenges of daily life in his valley as the Taleban and the army vie for influence. In recent weeks, he says, the Taleban have gained the upper hand and are making their presence felt in brutal fashion.

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