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09/08/2022

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SLAC Associate

The following advice is very much based on my experience at a teaching-focused SLAC. Much of what I say below will may not be applicable at other kinds of institutions.

There are lots of things that can make a sample syllabus stand out in *negative* ways. In our hiring, a fair number of applicants get eliminated from the pool because their syllabi reveal they aren't interested in actually teaching our students. Some potential pitfalls I've actually seen (slightly emended for anonymization purposes):
1) Grading a 100-level gen ed course as if it's a graduate seminar, e.g., by basing the entire course grade on one 20-page paper due during finals week. Alternatively, grading the course only on the basis of multiple choice tests and check/pass writing assignments.
2) Language that makes it sound like one doesn't want to be bothered by students, e.g., by explicitly stating that the instructor will only meet students during office hours, or that students' participation grade will be penalized if they send emails outside of precise contact hours.
3) Inapropro choices of readings in one way or another, either in terms of content or difficulty. E.g., a course on "contemporary ethical issues" with only papers from the 1960s; a gen ed course that expects students to read half of Reasons and Persons over a weekend; an epistemology syllabus with most of the course consisting of units on non-epistemological topics like free will and personal identity.

I agree with Marcus that most sample syllabi are already very good, and so it's much more rare for one to be so good that it stands out from the pack. The ones that are truly memorable to me (some of which I still remember years after the search) almost always involved some unusual and creative assignment design (e.g., a history course where each student was assigned with adopting the persona of a specific philosopher for in-class discussion, or assignments to create philosophical TikToks, etc.) or else a number of unorthodox topics/readings aimed at engaging student interest.

Michel

I may be idiosyncratic in this, but I tend to think that sample syllabi are the most interesting and informative part of the teaching portfolio. I find them to be a rich source of concrete information about how the person in question teaches.

Some of that has to do with the choice of content. So, for example, are you just following that standard progression of topics in your Mind course, or are you also exploring more fun, unusual topics such as hive minds or zombieism? Are you introducing any work from cognate disciplines? How do you balance the basics with your fun, new content? Have you made any visible effort to include a decent proportion of readings by women, or from other traditions, perspectives, or disciplines?

As I see it, doing that kind of stuff demonstrates active engagement both with the subject, and with your audience (or, at least, with the task of teaching them). It helps to show that you're _excited_ about your own courses, and that kind of enthusiasm is contagious.

If the course seems kind of boring even to me, then that's a net negative. If it's indistinguishable from when I took that course as an undergrad in the early aughts, that's a net negative, too.

I don't attach too much weight to the assessments chosen, since these are sometimes at least partially outside the instructor's control (here, for example, we are required to follow a skeleton assessment profile for each course, so that all courses must include a participation grade and some must include essays and quizzes but no exams, others must include midterms and a final exam but no essays, etc. There's not a ton of room for experimentation.). If you have some creative assignments, that can be cool--I'll notice them, and might even steal some! But I won't necessarily attach much weight to it all. Really, I don't expect a sample syllabus to give me all the gory assignment details, I just expect it to quickly outline the different forms of assessment for the course. I trust to the teaching statement to tell me something about unusual but worthwhile experiments in teaching (e.g. providing audio versions of articles, playing the Hobbes game, etc.).

Daniel Weltman

To illustrate how (like a lot of other job market stuff) there's not one right answer, here are some ways I'm sort of the opposite of Michel:

1. I don't particularly care, and in fact sometimes I think it betrays a sort of lack of understanding of where students are coming from, if someone is "exploring more fun, unusual topics" rather than "just following the standard progression of topics." For students who are brand new to the field, all topics are equally unusual. And I think the standard topics in a field are often just as fun for students as new, unusual topics. Someone whose syllabus is packed full of "I bet most people don't teach THIS in a Philosophy of Mind" course strike me as someone who is designing a course for a professor (or for the search committee!) who has already been exposed to the typical stuff, not for students who are new to the entire discipline. (I do agree with Michel that it's good if someone includes readings from women, from other traditions, etc.)

2. To sort of reiterate the same point: I don't think it's bad if the course seems boring to me. I think it's bad if the course seems like it would be boring to students. But what bores students is very different from what bores me. "What is it like to be a bat?" for the 100th time might bore me. For students who are encountering it for the first time, it can be electrifying.

3. I attach huge weight to the assignments an instructor chooses, for 2 reasons.

First, it's a SAMPLE syllabus, not an actual syllabus. There is nothing "outside the instructor's control" here. You're submitting a job application, not a record of syllabi you've taught. Your syllabi can be aspirational. If your assignments are terrible I don't think "this is how my institution does it" is an excuse. You can create any syllabus you want for your application.

Second, my own pedagogical views are such that I think the readings you assign are much less important than the assignments you choose. There's no such thing as the perfect set of readings, I think: some students will love Author 1 and hate Author 2, and vice versa. But there are DEFINITELY some assignments that are just bad, tout court, and some that are good, because assignments can either contribute to teaching certain skills or they can just be a a rote "write me a paper and I'll give you a grade for the course" sort of exercise. The assignments show me how the instructor is thinking about pedagogy and they're the things I learn the most from. Two syllabi with identical readings can be very different depending on the assignments.

Addendum: although I agree that weird, creative assignments make a syllabus stand out, I'm not sure it's necessarily a bonus to stand out like this. You don't want to rule yourself out, like SLAC Associate says, and although I think weird assignments rarely do that, I think they also rarely get you on the shortlist or whatever. They make you stand out but not necessarily in a way that makes a difference. My own advice (which could easily just apply to me and people who think like me, and we might not be the majority) is to worry less about standing out and more about being good enough not to get disqualified. From that point on you just cross your fingers and hope to get lucky.

Michel

Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that your sample syllabus should be pitched at _me_; obviously, what matters is that _the students_ not be bored.

All I meant was that my tolerance for boring stuff is a lot higher than a student's, so that if your topics are so esoteric that _even I_ struggle to get behind them, that's bad news on the student front. What I'm guaging is what the course will be like for students, not what it would be like for me.

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