Hey everyone. If your summer schedule is anything like mine, then you’re probably working on your syllabi for Fall courses. My syllabus design series so far has been *very* occasional: you can read the first post here. For this installment, I want to tackle a big-picture question that you have to settle before figuring out anything else, namely what sort of course you want to teach.
[Edited: Thanks to Preston for pointing out a pretty big formatting error in the original version of this post.]
The principle guiding this post is that there are different ways of structuring the class, and that each way of doing it has some pros and cons which make it difficult to combine with other structures. If this is right, then it’s better to identify these structures in advance, and have it clear in your own mind which one you’re going for, rather than muddling through with a less-effective combination of structures.
Roughly speaking, I think we can divide the available kinds of courses into six categories. These descriptions are meant to gesture at something I hope you recognize, rather than provide necessary and/or sufficient conditions or something like that, so I hope the details aren’t too distracting.
- The historical survey. At the beginning for some historical period, and work your way through the period chronologically. So, for instance, an intro class might start with Socrates/Plato, then Aristotle, then Aquinas, then Descartes, then Lock, then Hume, then Kant, etc. An ancient course would start with the Presocratics, then Plato, then Aristotle, up through the Hellenistic period. The emphasis here can go one of two ways. One is a sort of greatest hits approach, where you read some of the best/most interesting bits from each author, whatever the topic. The other is meant to follow a philosophical conversation through history, seeing how each author either approaches the same topic or avoids/replaces it in response.
- The topical survey. This is most common in Intro, but you can see it in a smaller way in more topical courses. The idea here is to expose the students to a range of questions and theories in philosophy. So, Intro to Philosophy will often cover logic, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics. An ethics course might survey utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, and maybe care ethics, divine command, etc. The point is to show the breadth of the domain you’re covering, with a little bit of time spent on a lot of topics.
- The deep dive. This is the opposite of the topical survey. Here you pick a single question, and explore it in detail from a number of angles. This is probably the most common way to do a grad seminar, but you can use the same approach for lower-level courses. For example, an Intro Ethics course could spend the entire semester on vegetarianism, with units that focus on intersections with other areas.
The central text. This approach is a lot like the deep dive, but it focuses on reading a single work rather than on a single issue. For instance, you might spend an entire course on Plato’s Republic, or on Korsgaard’s Self-Constitution. In this class, you can focus on a single author’s text, and ask questions about how the work hangs together that you can’t really ask in other kinds of courses.
The sequence. Most common in Logic, but you sometimes see it elsewhere. Here the focus is on covering a certain amount of material that will be presupposed in a later courses. What makes this kind of class its own category is its practical aim: this class is explicitly designed to work in conjunction with other courses, and so is constrained in a way that the other ways of setting up a course are not.
The practicum. Less common in philosophy, but not impossible. Like the sequence, this course is practically oriented. But the practical focus is expressed in a different way. The easiest example is probably an applied philosophy topic, like medical ethics. Rather than (or in addition to) simply reading, this kind of class would be focused on more hands-on activities. For instance, at an AAPT workshop [plug!] I heard an example of taking an environmental ethics class to volunteer at a nature preserve, which used the work of clearing an invasive species of plant to discuss the relationship between species and ecosystems.
I’m sure there are categories I’m forgetting, or sub-categories worth singling out, but hopefully you get the idea.
I don’t have a lot to say about the merits of the various options here. The right choice depends on a number of contextual factors, like what level the course is or what the rest of your department’s course offerings looks like.
Instead, I want to suggest that it’s important to pick one of these categories and go with it. This is because trying to combine more than one way of structuring a course dilutes the strengths of each option and compounds the weaknesses. For example, trying to combine the historical survey and the central text approaches will either involve very little survey (shortchanging the first option) or way too much reading (shortchanging the second).1 Combining the historical and topical surveys risks having a disjointed semester, where students lose track of what the point is. I don’t want to say it’s impossible to put together a well-designed hybrid, but it’s difficult, and I suspect that the effort required to do it well would be better spent in other ways.
More practically, the decision you make here about the sort of class you want to do will have important ramifications down the road. For instance, you don’t need to order a big anthology if you’re only reading the Republic, but you might order one if you want to cover small excerpts from a number of authors. Or, having exams might be appropriate for one kind of class, response papers for another, terms papers for another.
In one way, all this sounds rather obvious, almost to the point of not needing to be said. Full disclosure, I wrote a draft of this post several months ago, and worried I didn’t have enough to say, so scrapped it. But I think there’s value even in consciously identifying pedagogical choices, even if doing so doesn’t change the choice you would make. And maybe seeing things presented explicitly in this way might help an idea click in your head.
In the next installment of this series, I’ll talk about a procedure you can use to help figure out whether one class structure works better than another for your course goals. In the meantime, I’d love to hear readers’ thoughts on how they approach this issue, if there are some class categories I missed, etc. I’m always on the look-out for better ways of doing things, so let me know your thoughts!
 The one outlier I can see to this trend is with the sequence option. Your department might have a history sequence of required course for majors, for instance. But the amount of flexibility you have here is very different from what you see in logic.