Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How to distinguish courses?

You know, I'm not sure why this question never came firmly into my mind before, but I'd guess it had something to do with being an advanced grad student a year ago who couldn't really imagine teaching anyone except undergrads.  Here's the question:

How do you differentiate between courses you'd offer to undergrads, and those you'd offer to grad students?

Aside from a few basic meat-and-potatoes courses that one expects to teach in most departments — Introduction to Complexification Studies*, History of Complexification Theory, etc. — I'm not sure what hiring committees expect candidates to display in their syllabus portfolios.  I've designed a bunch of syllabi that, for the most part, I envisioned as courses for undergrad majors who had already taken intro-level stuff.  The trick here is that I have a fantastic undergrad alma mater (if I say so myself), where major-level course material was reliably challenging, and professors expected us to sweat out tough readings and essays.  But that was a tiny elite school at which such work was par for the course.  My experience at DOU has taught me that not every place can (or even should) operate like that.

So now I'm wondering: how do other academics decide that one syllabus is a doughty, drink-your-coffee advanced undergrad course, and another is sufficiently difficult and weighty that it should only be offered as a graduate course?   I really don't know how much material is too much to expect for one group or another, not having actually taught these syllabi yet.  The only comparative example I have seen is History of Complexification Theory, which I took as both an undergrad and a grad student.  The difference there — sharp as it was! — was mostly one of degree rather than kind: more readings, more primary sources, more reaction papers, more participation at the grad level. 

I don't know if other disciplines will recognize this trend, but in my world, I also note that grad courses often sound way sexier and cooler than undergrad offerings.  Look at the catalog, and you'll see undergrad courses like:

Complexification Subfield A
Topics in Complexification Subfield B
Survey of Complexification Subfield C

Flip over to the grad courses, though, and you'll see:

Two Apparently Unconnected Things Juxtaposed to Suggest an Insidious and Fascinating Structural Relationship
Going Beyond All This Subfield Shit
Broadside Critiques of Complexification Studies by Its Own Practitioners

And so on.

So how do I figure out what I'm working with, anyway?  I worry that my inclinations lead me to structure undergrad syllabi that seem too difficult for even driven majors to work through.  But I've never even seriously attempted a graduate syllabus.  What does one attempt to do with such things at each level?  I just want to read, listen to, and watch cool stuff and discuss it all with my students.  Where does the undergrad-appropriate level end and the grad level begin?

*Yes, I am outright homaging/borrowing/stealing Profgrrrrl's handy term, since I continue to flail uselessly in my attempt to establish my own pseudonymous term for my work.


  1. Styley Geek linked and I followed, so here goes! This is a great sort of question. I hope I can help a little.

    I'm guessing your imagining an interview question from specific school X, right?

    My approach would be to look at specific school X, and see if you can figure out how the department (or your subfield) differentiates different levels of courses as a starting point. For example, in my group, we tend to use "intro to" for very basic classes, "survey" for sophomore classes, including GEs, "studies in" for junior level classes, and "workshops" or "seminars" for senior level classes. If you see that sort of coding, use that to help. (You might also find some syllabi on line, but you probably thought of that already.)

    Also, the assessment oriented folks will want to hear you think about what you want students to learn at different levels, and then work from there to how you help them learn those things (through assignments, readings, etc). At the sophomore/junior level, you may want to do a lot of "scaffolding" sorts of exercises, building skills, teaching MLA research, etc. At the senior level, you may think of MLA research as a review, and think about doing real analysis/research in a different way.

    Also look at what's required at different levels. If an English department has four required Brit/Am lit surveys required for all upper level classes, then you know your students will have heard of Spenser. If an English department requires theory, but not surveys, then you know they're more "build skills" than "canon rules" oriented. The students will know a bit about Marx, say, but not Spenser necessarily.

    For a grad course, I'd think about whether it's an MA only or a PhD program. In my experience, students in MA only programs are a bit less experienced, while someone in a PhD program may take a class six years in because it sounds cool. In either case, I'd aim to introduce students to texts, and to help them make connections in theoretically explicit ways with other texts. (I teach MA courses occasionally, but not PhD courses. So I could be totally off about PhD students being different.)

  2. My feeling (also coming from English) about the distinction between undergrad and grad courses is this: In undergrad courses, I expect that I am running the show and that students will respond to demonstrate that they've understood the show. In grad level courses, I expect the students to take the raw material that I give them and to turn it into their own show. Sure, I will bring threads together for them or nudge them in the right direction, but I expect them to be doing all of the work of the course plus some on their own and coming to the table ready to learn. That just ain't the case in the undergrad classroom a whole lot of the time, for a whole lot of reasons, no matter what type of institution.

    As for amount of work to assign, the rule of thumb for undergrad classes as I've heard it is somewhere around 2-3 hours spent out of class for every single hour spent in class. So, for a lit class, I'd assume that I can assign them around 100 pages of reading per week (with some variation depending on the density of the material - so in theory courses I assign more like 50-70 pages per week and with some less difficult novels I might assign up to 200 pages in a week).

    For grad students, I've heard students should be spending 4-5 hours per class hour. Also, I'd assume a more advanced level. So, in a typical grad class at a PhD-granting institution I'd say the equivalent of a novel a week plus a couple of articles is about standard per week. At an MA-granting institution, I'd say still a novel a week(ish) but probably the articles would be optional or divvied up somehow so students wouldn't have to do them every week.

  3. I'll say what I said over at Sisyphus's place, and build on the comments here by suggesting that the basic shift in course design is from breadth to depth. The lowest division courses are primarily broad and not very deep. As they narrow in focus (often historical or generic at first), they deepen in detail and intensity.

    So I have a few seqiences like this:
    Intro to Drama (general education)
    Modern Drama (Majors)
    Political Drama in the 20th C. (Capstone or MA level)
    Documentary Theatre and Political activism

    Running a few sequences like that can help a lot, both for you to clarify these distinctions, and for committees to see how you're building your own teaching identity.

    That said, sample syllabi for grad courses at this level may be overkill. From both sides of the hiring table, I found that a few actual syllabi from courses I taught, a single proposed syllabus for an upper division course, and then paragraph-long course descriptions for a bunch of other courses filled things out well enough. I think you'll find that the extra labor on a bunch of sample syllabi could backfire because hypothetical syllabi can never really conform to the needs of any specific student body...

  4. I hope you don't mind me re-posting and sending a bunch of people over here! ;)

  5. My apologies! I came here from Sisyphus, not Styley.

    I'm going to bed now. :(

  6. Many thanks to you all for your excellent comments! Let me try to address a few ideas in specific:

    @Bardiac: Thanks for dropping by! I never realized that those class names were sometimes used as a coding device. I'll keep my eyes open for that. Thus far, all the course catalogs I've seen don't clarify much, but then it never crossed my mind to look for a unifying coding practice. Your point about assessment strategies is also well taken, and rather intimidating! I've never given such pedagogical issues a moment's thought, and I guess I'll have to wise up in that area. Does this come up frequently in your experience? (No one has even suggested to me before that I need to unpack my pedagogy like this; such matters were beneath the concern of my professors, I fear.)

    @Dr. Crazy: I know exactly what you mean about running the show. I've found that much out the hard way in the courses I've already taught. Saving my voice by letting my students discuss a little more seemed like a great idea until I tried it. I'll definitely bear in mind your suggestions of workload, although at this point such details are still moot: except for the intro syllabus I've already taught and refined by practice, my syllabi have no workloads laid out yet. The advice I got on that score was that committees don't care about the tinkery details of what is due when, but about my choices of readings and the thematic structure I lay out in the course blurb.

    @Horace: Welcome! I find your comment particularly useful, coming as it does on the heels of Bardiac's observation on assessment. I like the idea of formulating my own personal sequence of courses that forces both the students and me to start out broad and work toward depth. I agree in theory that it's sort of overkill to worry about syllabi I haven't taught, but my experience thus far is that schools often want to know in great detail just what I would bring to the table in terms of courses, and how I would either fit in or conflict with courses (or colleagues) already in the department. Every upper-level syllabus I've designed was originally in response to a request from a committee, either in the job posting or in follow-up. Of course, some of them were percolating in the back of my mind for a long time, and I was eager to put them on paper, but about 75% of my syllabi were cooked up at need.