Crafting a Syllabus, Part One

The position of graduate teaching assistant includes a wide array of duties and responsibilities. Dependent upon the college or university at which you working on your PhD, as a TA you may find yourself either assisting a professor with lab sections of a course, with grading, with lectures throughout the term, or in some other capacity, or you may find yourself teaching a set department syllabus for introductory courses. In these cases, you will probably not need to write your own syllabus, but rather to follow someone else’s. However, at some point in your academic career you are going to have to write your own courses.

In our English department at a regional university with approximately 18,000 undergraduates, graduate teaching assistants are the instructors of record from their first course, and therefore we write our own syllabi. I will never forget the anxiety and excitement I felt the first time I sat down to write my own syllabus: what if I miss something? What if I get it wrong? What if I am trying to do too much, or to do too little, or I pick the wrong readings, or my class is too hard or too easy? Sure, we have a syllabus handbook for graduate teaching assistants, but like most such guides it covers the basics and policies (course guidelines and student learning outcomes; course descriptions from the student handbook; portfolio guidelines and rubric for the 101 courses; book orders, canceling classes, office hours, final exam policies, and the like) and seems either to assume that since we have been exposed to 3-5 syllabi a term, every term, as students, we’ll be fine writing our own syllabi, or that we should learn how to decide how much of what to teach on our own without too much input from the department. It can get overwhelming, especially if (like me) you are someone who takes her responsibilities very seriously, and is also an overachiever. At some point in all of this, you are probably going to become frustrated and start wondering: Who let me be in charge of a class, anyway?

In all likelihood, you are more prepared to teach than you think you are – and remember, teaching is something you have to learn how to do by doing it; all the theory in the world is not going to prepare you for stepping in front of your own class of students (which is part of the reason for the existence of this blog.) But if you are completely stressed out over the idea of running your own class, just know that once you have the syllabus written – as long as it is a good, clear syllabus, and you have paid attention to every aspect of it – teaching the class becomes commensurately easier. A clear plan is as important for you as it is for your students, and the syllabus is where that begins. In some ways, this initial planning is the most important work you are doing as a teacher. It determines the tone and difficulty level of your class before you ever step in front of the students.

This post breaks down the syllabus and explains how I go about choosing the materials for my classes, as an example of how one might go about this kind of work. Bear in mind that each university may have slightly different requirements for what you can and cannot teach, so always check with your department policies, cooperating professor and/or mentor, and whoever runs the graduate TA program before you finalize your course readings. I run my 101 drafts by our director of composition studies and my literature course drafts by our director of literature graduate TAs. Also, obviously, since I’m in English, my examples will be for English courses – but I think the basic approach that I take can be adapted for nearly any subject.

In general, a syllabus for a college-level course includes three major sections:

  1. Course Description, aims and goals, materials, and policies
  2. A description of major assignments and grading rubric
  3. A schedule of readings and assignments

Before you get started assembling these sections, you have to decide: what is this class? What are the students supposed to get out of this class? What texts and approaches are likely to get them there? And, what do I want to teach? These are the questions I am looking at in this post. There will be later posts for putting the whole syllabus together and finalizing it.

Don’t underestimate the importance of that last question. TAs often fall into the trap of thinking they “have” to teach certain texts because they’re important, canonical, things every student should read. But if you as the instructor don’t like a text, either you’d better be very good at feigning enthusiasm, or you’d better choose a different text. With the multitude of texts available to you, there’s no time or reason to give attention to any that don’t strike a chord with you. When you are teaching materials you care about, the students can tell that you are invested, and it makes them want to invest, too. Similarly, when you are teaching materials you aren’t comfortable with, haven’t studied enough, or don’t really care about, the students can sense that, too. Nothing will make your course fall flat quicker than your own lack of investment in what you are teaching. Choose wisely.

One very freeing consideration is this: Introductory courses – the ones that as TAs we are most likely to teach – are just that: introductions. Your class does not have to be, nor can it be, the last word in the subject area: it’s a foray, a survey, a beginning, a get-your-toes-wet kind of class. You are responsible for conveying the general terms, theories, ideas, and ways of going about studying materials in your area, to students who may or may not be going on to major in this field. If they do go on to major or minor in the field, they will eventually read “All the Things.” Your job is to get them to a place where they believe that they can do that – so the texts you choose need to be accessible and interesting, and teachable. That’s it. Everything else is up to you.

So, here’s what I do. I’m going to try to walk you through my brainstorming process in abbreviated form; generally, I take about 1-2 weeks to think through everything prior to beginning to put the whole list together. Below are the processes I took to get to a reading list for two of the classes I teach: “Introduction to Narrative,” and “Approaches to Literature.”

Ohhhhh, look at that, I’m teaching “Introduction to Narrative” this term. What is that class? Let’s see, the catalog description says: “Critical reading and analysis of American and British novels, short stories, and narrative poems. Attention to historical, cultural, and literary backgrounds as appropriate.” Well, that sounds terribly dull and uninteresting. What are the Student Learning Outcomes for this class? “1. Demonstrates the reading skill required for the student of literary texts; 2. Identify and/or describe some of the varied characteristics of literary texts; 3. Demonstrate orally, in writing, or by some other means, a fundamental ability to use some of the techniques and/or methods of literary analysis; 4. Identify and/or describe some of the various social, historical, cultural, and/or theoretical contexts in which literary texts have been written and interpreted.” So, a very general ed, broad-based introductory approach to the thing, then. Well, what am I going to do to make that interesting to teach and learn?

We need a theme, that’s what we need. Something that links it all together but still lets me look at each text on its own terms. Hmmmmnn. Interesting themes. Let’s see…. War and peace? Blergh, too contemporary issues-y. Gender? Meh, I would be bored as a general ed student in a class about gender. What about…. Medievalism? Oh, I know! King Arthur! Oh, wait, too specific, this isn’t a special topics course. But I do want to teach Arthurian texts. What themes can I look at and teach Arthurian texts? Students might not be that invested in chivalry, but what about…. Heroism? When I think of heroism, I think of Beowulf! Oh, yes, must have Beowulf… but then, how to also incorporate Arthurian materials? Hmmmmn, Beowulf… Beowulf is a hero, and he fights monsters – oh! Wait! I know! Heroes and Monsters! Hmmmmn, but that seems a bit basic. How do I jazz that up for a college level class? Introduce some criticism and theory? Yes! Yes, that’s it! We’ll do “Heroes and Monsters” and we’ll use the Hero’s Journey and Monster Culture: Seven Theses as theoretical lenses to discuss heroes and monstrosity. We’ll look at how these approaches are useful and also at how they can be a problem for studying literature. And then we’ll look at the texts in their own cultural spaces and also how the ideas of heroism and monstrosity change and shift for each different society as codified in those texts. That will be a good introduction to the critical thinking that goes into literary study, but not too overwhelming for non-majors. Yes! This will be interesting!

Now, what texts? I need a variety of narrative forms, both British and American. I want to show how the concepts of heroism and monstrosity are presented and how they change from one era to the next, but it needs to be clear to the students, without too much extra thinking. If I’m starting with Beowulf, what do I end with? What monsters do I want to focus on over the course of the class? Oooooh, dragons. Well, maybe not – too many novels, not enough short stories. What would the students like? What monsters are popular now? Duh – vampires and werewolves. OH! I know, let’s do Twilight! Twilight…. Is that academic enough? Wait – general ed. class. If I’m specific with my reasons for teaching it, Twilight is fine. It’s an intro to narrative course. It’s a good narrative, or it wouldn’t be SO popular. So, I’ll start with Beowulf, then do Bisclavret and Arthur and Gorlagon for the werewolves, and we can do Dracula for the vampires, and – wait, how do I get from Beowulf to Twilight? Maybe I should start by listing the forms I want to cover and then brainstorm titles. I know I’m doing Beowulf as an epic poem. So Bisclavret is a lai, another poem, and Arthur and Gorlagon is a short prose narrative. Novels. What about novels? Dracula and Twilight, of course. Should I have three of each kind of text – 3 poems, 3 short narratives, 3 novels? That might be a good round set of numbers. Something like that – not too much reading, but also not leaving me wondering “what else can I teach to fill the space?” What do I have – an Anglo-Saxon epic, an Anglo-Norman lai, a short prose narrative translated from Latin, a 19th century Irish novel, a 20th century YA paranormal romance. What would pair well with those as other narrative forms? Ohmygosh, I could do a medieval romance – what about some excerpts from the Morte Darthur in translation? That would be interesting, to see the shift in romance narratives from one form to the other.

Heroes, heroes, not enough heroes – wait a minute, would it be crazy to try to teach Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – no, it might be too much – but if I have a YA paranormal romance, why not a middle grade fantasy as a bridge from classical versions of hero/monster stories like Dracula to the fully updated sparkly vampires? And Harry is also an Arthurian figure, which fits in with the hero motif, and — what about Moses, from the Bible? Oh, yes – this will work. It’s all about “self” and “otherness”, about how we perceive heroes and monsters, about how personal and cultural at the same time these things are. This will be a great trajectory. They’ll look at texts they have read a dozen times, but read against other works they’ll find new and different things to consider. But I need something to finish it off and tie it all together. Hmmmmn….. monsters, heroes, religion, Arthurian, updated heroes and monsters – oh, wow. I’ll add a graphic narrative! We’ll do Hellboy, the Wild Hunt. That will give them a very broad set of narrative forms to look at, and a really wide set of monsters and heroes to consider through the theoretical lenses, and this is going to be a GREAT class!

So, let’s put all of this together and see if I have a trajectory that makes sense and that is readily explainable to someone not in my head. This is an Introduction to Narrative class. I need a variety of narratives both British and American, and we need to go over literary terms and elements as well as elements of narrative. It’s a general ed. course for non-majors, and needs to be accessible, interesting, and challenging. I’ve decided to structure it around the theme: “Heroes and Monsters: Narratives of Identity and Alterity” and to look at the development of those themes in different narrative forms and from different cultures, using the theoretical lenses of The Hero’s Journey and Monster Culture: Seven Theses as a basis from which to construct understanding and meaning. And here’s what I came up with:

Scott Thomas Gibson, Tammy Lancaster & Summar Sparks, Lenses: Perspectives on Literature  (This is the required introduction to literature textbook for our general lit courses)

Joseph Campbell: “The Hero’s Journey” (American, 20th century theoretical text)

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen: “Monster Culture: Seven Theses” (American, 20th century theoretical text)

Seamus Heaney, trans. Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, 10th century epic poem)

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur (Middle English, 15th century romance) (excerpts)

“Arthur and Gorlagon” (English translation of a 14th century Latin prose romance)

Marie de France, “Bisclavret” (Anglo Norman lai poem)

The Holy Bible: “Exodus” & “Leviticus”

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (English contemporary middle grade novel)

Bram Stoker, Dracula (Irish 19th century novel)

Stephanie Meyer, Twilight (American 21st century YA paranormal novel)

John Byrne & Mike Mignola, Hellboy, Volume 9: The Wild Hunt  (American 20th century graphic narrative)

Now, how will this work in a syllabus? What’s the trajectory?

Week One: The Classic Figures: Epic heroes and monsters in the Anglo-Saxon tradition (Beowulf)

Week Two: The Quintessential Hero: King Arthur in the English tradition (Morte Darthur)

Week Three: The Updated Hero: Moses, King Arthur, and Harry Potter (the Morte, Moses and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)

Week Four: Heroes for Children…? Harry Potter, cont’d

Week Five: It’s a man! It’s a wolf! Classic werewolves in the English tradition (Bisclavret and Arthur and Gorlagon)

Week Six: The Quintessential Vampire: Count Dracula

Week Seven: The Monster Mash! New Spins On Old Favorites for the YA Crowd (Twilight)

Week Eight: Who’s Your Hero? Race, Gender, and Challenging the Canon with Twilight

Week Nine: Getting Graphic: Heroes and Monsters in visual narrative texts (Hellboy: The Wild Hunt)

Okay, I like that trajectory. I think it’s easy to follow, organized, and students will “get it.” I’m not sure about timing and placement yet, maybe two weeks per novel? I also need to think about assignments and tests, and I need to put the whole thing together, but this is a promising start to an introductory level syllabus for this particular subject.

“Approaches to Literature.” Same student learning outcomes, but now the course description is: “Critical reading and analysis of fiction, poetry, and drama with an emphasis on a variety of major themes and their relevance to contemporary life.” Argh. Okay, fine, but none of this random, teaching-all-over-the-place. I want to make this deliberate, intentional, and to build from one type of literature to the next in terms of understanding and meaning. I don’t want to teach things in a vacuum and this isn’t a survey class so I don’t have to cover a huge amount, just representative texts from each type of literature. I have sixteen weeks to fill.

I still want to organize it around one major idea and then tuck into the myriad other themes. What am I interested in? Let’s see…. What about transformations and becoming? Then we can also go into nature, science, birth, life, death, change, bildungsroman, trust, loyalty, relationships, all kinds of stuff. Okay, great. What would be a good organizing principle for this? What about……. I don’t know. Start listing texts you’d like to teach. What do I want to work with? Stuff I’ve taught before, obviously. What have I read recently?? Frankenstein, the Romantic poets – Shelley, Blake – metaphysical poets like John Donne, just finished working with the 17th century dramatists – Ben Jonson is fun. I could do some Shakespeare as well. What about shorter prose? Geez, I don’t know.

What do all of these writers have in common? Any common themes? Anything that links them? What about…. You know what they all have in common and what I really want to teach? Literary alchemy. That’s what I really want to teach. I’m working on an article featuring alchemical imagery, and this would be a great opportunity to try out those ideas with students; and besides, when we did Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and I did that lecture on literary alchemy the class was completely into it, I had ten final papers on the subject, so they’re generally interested in that topic.  Do all of these have some element of alchemy in them? Let’s see what I can do: Shakespeare, maybe, with The Tempest? Jonson – The Alchemyst, of course. OH! Goethe or Marlowe’s Faustus? Donne has “Love’s Alchemie”…. Chaucer! The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, perfect. Blake, yes, what about Jerusalem? And Frankenstein has some alchemy in it as well. What about something outside the box, something different and not usually taught that would be interesting? It would be great to have an updated Frankenstein….. oh, Ekaterina Sedia’s Alchemy of Stone? And what about short stories – Borgias? Yes, Borgias. H.P. Lovecraft also, and maybe some Ursula le Guin? And Pablo Coehlo’s The Alchemist, also. What about a graphic novel? Ummmm…. Full Metal Alchemist! Awesome. This could work. Are there enough other themes available beyond alchemy? Yes, I think so – we’ve got religion/Christianity, self-sacrifice, secrets, nature, science, magic, supernatural, identity, alterity, technology, life, death, regeneration, transformation, good and evil, right and wrong, morality and ethics, for starters. All very relatable. Having the more modern texts in juxtaposition against the earlier ones will help students construct meaning and understanding. What have I got, then? Preliminary reading list:


William Shakespeare, The Tempest (2 – 3 class sessions)

Ben Johnson, The Alchemyst (2 – 3 class sessions)

Johann von Goethe, Faust (2 – 3 class sessions)


Geoffrey Chaucer, “The Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale” (1 class session)

Ben Johnson, “Love’s Alchemy”        ————

William Blake, selections                      ———-           (1-1.5 class sessions)

Percy Bysshe Shelley, selections         ———–

Muriel Spark, “The Ballad of Peckham Rye” – (1-1.5 class sessions)

Short Prose

Thomas Malory, Sankgraal (from Le Morte Darthur) (1- 1.5 class session(s)

H.P. Lovecraft, “The Alchemist” (1-.5 class session)

Jorge Louis Borges, “The Tale of Two Dreamers” (1 class session)

Ursula le Guin, “Schroedinger’s Cat” (1 class session)


Paolo Coehlo, The Alchemist (3 class sessions)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein   (4 class sessions)

Ekaterina Sedia, The Alchemy of Stone   (4 class sessions)

Graphic Narrative

Hiromu Arakawa, Fullmetal Alchemist  (2 class sessions)

That might be too much. I’ll need to think about it and consider pacing as I go to write the full syllabus, but I like it and I think it will teach well. I’ve covered the major literary forms, and even though they’re all about alchemy, there’s also a wide variety of other themes to discuss. There’s a good mix of older and more contemporary titles, and it will meet the student learning outcomes. I’m happy with this for now.

So, those are two ways in which I have gone about structuring the reading list for a syllabus. In another post, I’ll discuss putting the whole thing together, pacing, adding assignments, and the like.

What about you? How do you go about deciding the reading list for your syllabus?


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
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One Response to Crafting a Syllabus, Part One

  1. Pingback: Crafting a Syllabus, Part Three: Putting it all together | Melissa Ridley Elmes

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