So, You’re Developing Your First Solo Class: A Brief Guide To College Course Levels

If you have never taught before, or have been a teaching assistant for a course but not Instructor of Record, the idea of developing your own syllabus can be a daunting one. What should you teach? How should you teach it? Which readings do you choose? The possibilities can seem endless, and even overwhelming. Many younger scholars turn in this endeavor to the syllabi from courses they, themselves have taken as students, or hit the Internet for ideas, which are both good options. But eventually, you’ll still need to take the training wheels off and come up with your own materials. One danger in this process is that by the time graduate students begin teaching, they are often distanced enough from undergraduate coursework through their own graduate seminar experiences to have trouble pitching instruction appropriately, which can result in courses that are too difficult or that don’t meet the particular needs of undergraduate students in a given field. I think one of the keys to helping us to think through this process is to consider the purpose of the courses at each level of college education. What, precisely, are the differences between, say, a 100-level class and a 300-level one?

I’ll begin with the usual caveat: my comments and suggestions are based in the American university model and in my personal experiences with same; they are also focused on English literature/ humanities courses, which is where I hang my hat professionally. However, although I am focusing on literature courses, I think any graduate student beginning a teaching career can benefit from thinking through the course levels and what each means from a pedagogical standpoint.

Typically, a 4-year college or university has four levels of undergraduate instruction, with some universities also permitting advanced undergraduates to participate in combination 400/500-level courses designed for both undergraduate and graduate students. Although the numbering system for these courses can vary, I will stick with the traditional labels (100-level, 200-level, 300-level, and 400-level) and you can adjust according to your particular institution’s course labeling system. I am not going to discuss the 400/500 combination courses in this post, because it is extremely rare that a graduate student would be permitted to teach other graduate students, so it won’t be useful for our purposes.

The 100-level courses are usually the introductory courses in your field, discipline, or subject. They are intended to serve as the spaces where students pick up the vocabulary, the writing forms and styles, and the skills related to the study of a particular subject. When you are designing such a course, you really want to think about it from the standpoint of a beginner–for me, that means asking: what kinds of work do we do in English (or more specifically, dependent upon the class, the study of poetry, narrative, literature, drama, & etc.) and what do we need in order to do it? You want to make sure that what you are doing in this class teaches the students the vocabulary and skills they need to be able to use–that is, poetic and literary terms, comparative and close reading, literary interpretation, maybe some literary criticism–in the context of the readings you have chosen. Because this isn’t a survey or specific topical course, you have perhaps the most leeway in these courses in terms of the texts you choose to use with them (unless your university has a required syllabus for you to follow). As long as the students are using the texts you’ve chosen to gain the skills of talking and writing about literature, your course is meeting the 100-level requirements. It’s not as important to cover a super-wide variety of materials, or famous, canonical authors and texts, so much as to use the materials you do cover to ensure students gain the necessary skills to read, interpret, analyze, and write about texts. Written assignments at this level might include an interpretive or comparative essay, a character or thematic analysis, and/or a close reading. I like to make at least one of my assignments a multi-modal or multi-genre one, to give my students the chance to see how digital components can alter how they think about and present literary analysis and to make connections between English and technology.

The 200-level literature courses are often the surveys of a particular literary tradition (Englih, American, World, Nonwestern, & etc.) and are usually taken by majors. Here, you need to think about breadth and scope. It’s a good idea to bear in mind that for many of your students, this will be the only broad survey course in the area, and that ultimately, these are the courses that serve to show the students the “sweep” of your subject–for instance, British Literature I (medieval through 17th or 18th century) and British Literature II (18th or 19th century through contemporary works). While it is certainly fine for you to insert your own interests and specialties into your instruction, and to include texts not usually studied in a traditional curriculum, these are not the courses to fully reconfigure to your own pet methodology or theory about “the canon.” You may, for instance, think Milton is overrated (or, alternately, you may be intimidated by the idea of teaching Milton) but Milton is not going away, and skipping him in a Brit Lir I survey is a poor pedagogical decision. Keep in mind that many of your students in these courses will likely go on to take the GRE, which whether we like it or not requires them to be familiar with canonical English and American texts, and that it is in these surveys that they are most likely to encounter those works. You therefore want to ensure a good balance between the traditional texts that are often found on entrance exams for graduate programs and in later seminar work, and texts that might not be as canonical but that you think students should know or that you want them to know. Written assignments at this level might include close readings developed into analytical essays, comparative analysis, and/or thematic and character analysis, or a shorter research paper focusing on a specific author or text, based on a prompt from the professor.

The 300-level literature courses take students more deeply into a specific literary space they likely first encountered in the survey–for instance, Early American Writing, Golden Age Spanish literature, or Medieval literature; they can also sometimes be grouped around a specific author or text(s) (i.e. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or Shakespeare’s Tragedies). These are the courses where majors begin to specialize in a particular area (English, American, World, for instance) and because of this, you can start thinking about important critical and theoretical models they might need to be aware of, the current conversations in the field on a given text, and what can reasonably be expected of an undergraduate student in terms of literary criticism and analysis at a more advanced level. While you can assign a few critical readings in these classes to introduce them to the critical tradition and to using criticism in support of their thinking, your instructional emphasis at this level should be on refining students’ ability to interpret and analyze the texts on their own, and helping them develop original ideas and learn to write those ideas in formal academic discourse. There should be at least one major research project involved in a 300-level course which requires the students to come up with an idea based in their reading and develop it into a full-blown research paper inorporating close reading, interpretation, research, and analysis.

The 400-level courses are usually topical and often incorporate the professor’s own specialties and research interests. As seminars, the focus is on fewer texts and greater attention to the specific requirements of reading those texts professionally based on field models and approaches–for instance, whereas in a 300-level Chaucer class you might focus on gaining proficiency in Middle English and interpreting the characters and themes of the Canterbury Tales, in a 400-level class you might look more closely at the specific uses Chaucer makes of language, at the socio-political contexts that inform the various tales and characters, and at the intertextuality of the Tales; or alternately, you might approach texts from a specific critical lens or set of lenses such as gender, postcolonialism, or New Historicism. 400-level classes can include more critical readings and you can assign an essay in which students, citing several critics, summarize a current theoretical or critical debate on a topic covered in the course and then offer their own voice to the conversation, in addition to more traditional literary interpretation and analysis. As with the 300-level courses, there should be at least one major research project involved in a 400-level course which requires the students to come up with an original idea based in their reading, and to develop that idea into a full-blown research paper inorporating close reading, interpretation, research, and analysis.

While these are very broadly generalized interpretations of course numbers and should not be taken as prescriptive in nature, I hope this post helps new-to-the-profession scholars think productively about the courses they are developing and the kinds of work often associated with each level of instruction. As always, I’m happy to hear from you about your experiences and insights; if you have anything to share, please leave a comment below!


About Melissa Ridley Elmes

Professor and writer; Unrepentant nerd; chaotic good. Author of Arthurian Things: A Collection of Poems. PhD, MFA. She/hers. Views my own.
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