Crafting a Syllabus

Note: Much of the advice here is specific to new Graduate Teaching Associates using Canvas at Cal Poly Pomona. However, there are aspects that apply to any new instructor who is going to teach First Year Composition.

Canvas offers a syllabus template that works as a fill-in-the-blank starting point for creating an effective syllabus. I’ll go through the basic elements. I think it is a good idea to create a document with all of this information in it that you can send to students who have added, but don’t yet have access to the course on Canvas. You can then paste the relevant sections into the Canvas syllabus tool.

Welcome!

The prompt says “Add a friendly welcome-to-the-course.” Here you put a description of the course from your point of view including what it covers, how it fits into the context of the university, and what students will learn to do. The paragraph or two you put here will set the tone for the rest of the syllabus and the course itself. It is a bit paradoxical. You want to engage students, calm their fears, but also prepare them for challenges. You want to create excitement, but also make them feel that there is difficult work that is worth doing that they are capable of doing. You also begin building your ethos as an instructor here.

Your Instructor

Here you put the name you would prefer to be called, your email address, your office hours, and perhaps a picture of yourself. You may also want to write a short paragraph about yourself. You do not have to reveal that you are a TA or a new instructor, but you may want to talk about why you wanted to be a composition teacher, your philosophy of teaching, and other information that might help your students feel comfortable learning from you.

What students will call you is a complicated question. Technically, you are a Graduate Teaching Associate or GTA, but they don’t need to know that. Most of the faculty teaching FYC are lecturers, not “tenure-track” or tenured faculty. Among tenure-track faculty, there are specific ranks. New faculty are Assistant Professors. After six years of excellent evaluations of teaching, scholarly work, and university service, an Assistant Professor can apply for tenure and promotion to Associate Professor. After four more years of excellent work, an Associate Professor can apply to be promoted to the rank of Professor. Thus the rank of “Professor” is actually the highest rank, earned over a period of ten years of teaching, scholarship, and service to the department and the university. (As I am semi-retired at this point, I am “Professor Emeritus.”)

However, the general public thinks that all people who teach at a university are professors who hold doctoral degrees. It is probably simplest if your students call you “Professor Your Last Name.” That is what they will probably do naturally.

Course Information

Here you put basic course information such as department, course number, section, class number, the name of the course. You can get this information from the campus website.

Course Format

This has gotten complicated recently because of the pandemic and the shift to various kinds of online instruction. The full list of instruction modes recognized by Cal Poly Pomona can be found at Online or Hybrid Course Definitions. “Asynchronous” means instruction is online to be done “at time/location of students’ choice.” “Synchronous” means instruction is online, but delivered at specific times through Zoom or another platform. Looking through these definitions, I realize that my courses have been “web-assisted” for more than 20 years. My current courses are listed as “Hybrid with Synchronous Component,” but really should be listed as “Hybrid with Asynchronous Component.” Oh well. I think that most of the TA sections of FYC will be either “Fully Synchronous” or “Hybrid with Synchronous Component.”

You should also put the days and times of your face-to-face and/or synchronous meetings here.

Course Description and Learning Outcomes

The template says “Give the catalog description and your learning outcomes.” The catalog description for ENG 1100 – Stretch Composition I is “Writing fluency, basic essay structure and rhetorical principles, critical reading, and online research. Frequent practice writing essays.” For ENG 1103 – First Year Composition (3) it is “Principal concepts of rhetoric, argumentation, and research. Frequent practice writing essays, letters, and other genres commonly used in academic writing.”

The full 15 outcomes might be a little intimidating for students at the very beginning of the course, so in your syllabus, you might use this collapsed version. You can use the more detailed ones for individual assignments:

  • Pre-writing and Drafting–Generate ideas using appropriate pre-writing strategies; develop those ideas into readable drafts
  • Rhetorical Analysis and Argumentation–Explain and respond to the rhetoric and arguments of others
  • Critical Reading–Read difficult, research-based texts with critical understanding
  • Researching, Quoting, Paraphrasing, and Documenting Sources–Design academic inquiries and develop strategies for finding, evaluating, and integrating information purposefully in a given context
  • Style, Genre Conventions, and Disciplinary Knowledge–Craft a style appropriate to the genre, audience, and purpose of the text
  • Revision–Revise his or her own texts considering genre and rhetorical situation
    Proofreading–Improve correctness and clarity of his or her own texts

Required Materials

List the required books and other resources in MLA format. You might follow this with a narrative description of the texts and how you plan to use them. Students in FYC are sometimes surprised when they find out that they have to buy the books because books in high school are loaned to them for free.

Prerequisites, Co-requisites, and Necessary Skills

ENG 1100 has no prerequisites. ENG 1103 says “CO Category II,” but under Directed Self-Placement, this is pretty meaningless, so you could leave this category out of your syllabus.

Communication

Here you should describe how you will communicate with students and how they should contact you if they have questions. I usually send announcements twice a week, once on Sunday to remind students of what is due and to preview the coming week, and another later in the week with a class meeting agenda. These appear on the Canvas site and are also emailed to the students (if it works on Canvas the way it works on Blackboard). The best way for students to contact me is through email. However, there are more up-to-date modes of communication which you may use. I would avoid giving them your cell phone number, however.

Instructor Responsibilities

This is an interesting category. I would not have thought of this before I saw it in the template our eLearning people created for teaching online in Blackboard. I usually put something like the following:

  • I have taught this course many times before, but this is the first time I have taught a hybrid semi-online version in Canvas, so there may be glitches. I will do everything I can to resolve them as soon as possible.
  • I generally begin grading and responding to work soon after it is submitted and complete the responses within three days. For papers I make in-text comments in Canvas and use a rubric specially designed for the assignment to give a score. I usually make a summary comment at the bottom of the rubric, so be sure to look there.
  • I will respond to emailed questions as quickly as I can. I will also email you if I have questions about your work or if I cannot open the file you have uploaded.
  • I try to make my assignments as clear as possible, but if you have questions, please email me or ask in my in-person or Zoom office hours.

Student Responsibilities

I usually put something like the following:

  • Read all emails and announcements from me about the course
  • Read texts and other materials in the week assigned for them
  • Participate in discussion boards and writing groups
  • Avoid angry messages, flaming, trolling, offensive or profane language.
  • Be sensitive to those with different cultural and/or linguistic backgrounds, as well as different political and religious beliefs.
  • Upload work to Canvas by the due date in a format I can read (I can read most common file formats, such as .doc, .docx, .pdf, .odt, and .rtf, though Apple formats such as Pages files are more difficult. The most common problem is when students post links to Google Doc files instead of the actual files.)
  • If you email me with a question, please include your name and the course you are in.
  • If you email a paper to me, please name the document file something like this: LastNameFirstName-Assignment-Course.doc (I get lots of papers called “mypaper.doc” and it is easy to lose track of who submitted it.)
  • Perhaps most important of all, be engaged in the course! I have designed it to be a learning experience, not a series of busy work assignments to get a grade.

Grades

Explain your grading system. Lately, I have been using a 500-point system. I include a chart which shows how many points a student needs to get specific letter grades. The chart is based on the percentage of the total points the student has. Using a points system in this way means that all of the assignments have to be designated from the beginning and each assigned a point value consistent with the time, effort, and skills put into accomplishing it. The other disadvantage of this system is that if you decide to omit a planned assignment for whatever reason, you have to re-balance the points. I often have to do a bit of re-balancing near the end of the semester. Here is my chart:

GradeChart-500points-color-cropped

Another popular system is to have categories such as Homework, Quizzes, Discussions, Exams, and Research Paper and assign a percentage to each category. The gradebook in Blackboard allowed you to categorize assignments in this way, though I never used this feature. I assume Canvas will also do this. The advantage of this system is that you can add or subtract assignments in a category without changing the weight of that category. There is a pretty good explanation of this system on this Lansing Community College site.

Whatever system you choose, make sure that it is clearly understood by your students.

Make-Up and Late Work Policies

Most new TAs want to have very strict policies about attendance and late work. They might say something like “No more than three unexcused absences and no late papers.” In my experience, with such strict policies, you will find yourself at times wanting to circumvent your own policy for good reasons, especially during the pandemic. Students have lives and responsibilities beyond the classroom. Last semester, I was doing breakout groups on Zoom, and one student did not immediately join her group. I asked her why and she didn’t respond at first. Finally she said, “Sorry, I’m at work and I am hiding my phone in my apron.” I appreciated her honesty, and I find that the more honest they are with me, the easier it is to work with them.

One way to give yourself some flexibility is to be generous in the way you define “excused.” I generally consider an absence excused if the student emails me before or shortly after the meeting with a reasonable excuse. I want the students to stay in contact with me. I also generally give them the benefit of the doubt, even if the excuse sounds fishy. I never ask for doctor’s excuses or mechanic’s invoices.

Last semester I used Blackboard’s attendance tool, which keeps track of attendance as a percentage. I allotted 40 points to attendance and gave them whatever percentage of the points they had earned. That worked well. (It turns out that Canvas has a similar attendance tool, but you have to go to to “Settings” then “Navigation” and then drag the Attendance tool into the upper menu and then click “Save.”)

On late work, during the pandemic I became very flexible. I said that a paper would get full credit if submitted by the due date, but would be docked 15% no matter how late it was submitted, up to the end of week 15. Last semester, I had only five F’s out of about 50 students, and some of the late work was of very high quality. This liberal policy saved about 10 students from failing. A couple of students put off too much work so that they were too far behind to catch up. That is the disadvantage of such a liberal policy. Deadlines serve both the instructor and the student by keeping a pace and distributing the workload over time. A more normal policy would be to dock points for each day it was late until it would be fruitless to turn it in.

The Rest

The rest of the syllabus is about university policies. The template includes a lot of very useful links that you can leave in there for students.

Next up: The reading schedule, which is a week by week articulation of the readings, the activities, and the writing assignments. I work this all out in a single document, but in Canvas, I will use the “Modules” feature to lay everything out. As you plan your course, it is best to think in terms of modules, then weeks, then days.