The ‘next-time’ syllabus

After five years of full-time teaching I feel like I am finally beginning to get a handle on… well, teaching! I remember my mentor as an undergraduate, who had been teaching the same classes at the same school for thirty years, telling me once that she felt that some her syllabi were finally coming together — and this over spans of time almost twice as long as my lifetime. She could even remember particularly ‘good’ years when the class and the material clicked. Since then I’ve always wondered at the ability of college professors to imagine a class as something with a scope as long as your biography itself — something refined and honed over a lifetime. Now that I have had a chance to take a whack or three at some of the courses that are near and dear to my heart I begin to understand what they meant: one of the satisfying things about teaching is that you never stop learning how to do it. Or at least that’s been my experience so far.

As a junior professor I find myself rewriting my syllabi pretty much the moment I begin teaching my courses. I try new readings, do old readings in different orders, juxtapose readings, and modify assignments from previous years. Pretty much immediately I see new connections and begin thinking about the next iteration of the course. The question then becomes: how to track and organize these thoughts? What mechanisms do we have to record thoughts on class planning and make sure those records get accessed the next time we plan a class.

I am sure that there are many people with Ph.D.s in curriculum development who know far more about this than I do (if you have any insights, please leave a comment), but one trick that I’ve found is what I’ve come to call the ‘for-next-time syllabus’. On the first day of class I take the final version of the syllabus and make a duplicate copy in the folder for my class. I then add the words ‘for next time’ to the title. Then, after every class, I open up the next-time syllabus and add thoughts on how the class went, what people needed but didn’t get out of the reading, and what I might teach next time. Then the next time I teach the course, I use the next-time syllabus rather than the previous one I used.

I thought I’d pass this along as a (potentially) useful trick for graduate students and new professors, since it is often the case that new professors don’t receive extensive training in pedagogy, much less course planning. It’s not a very fancy trick, but often when you start teaching (read: adjuncting) you don’t have time for fancy course planning. Fixing future thoughts on teaching in a syllabus means they’re less likely to be forgotten then if they are locked up in some physical pieces or paper or some journal program or blog where things scroll out of existence (and of course a year after you teach the course even the most vivid memories of lessons learned have faded away). And, most importantly, confronting a formatted document can help provide a framework for your thoughts and help organize them — on this day I need to do that. At any rate it’s worked well for me — what tricks do other teachers use to help develop their classes?


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

10 thoughts on “The ‘next-time’ syllabus

  1. I love the idea of the “next time” syllabus. I try to make notes of things that work or don’t work as the term goes by (I’m in the third quarter of an intro to ling anth right now with a lot of notes…) but I don’t have a good coherent way of filing them. They do form part of the raw material for my teaching portfolio, which will be part of my promotion package in a couple of years.

    One other thing which I find useful, advice given to a bunch of us grad students by a faculty member with teaching awards but who had started out with difficulties, was to consider the course as a whole and select the one really important central concept you wanted students to come away with. The example she gave was “sovereignty”. For me, at least right now, in my intro to ling anth I want them to grok emergence, the complex interweaving of sets of rules at various levels which all come together when we language. When I start to get lost in details, I try to step back and see where I am as I move this class toward the major goal.

  2. I recommend making a copy of the syllabus as an editable Google Doc, and encouraging students to make notes on it as well. Then your syllabus becomes almost like a Wiki … This has worked well for the supplementary readings section of my graduate cultural theory class – and in some cases I might swap the required and supplementary materials.

  3. Rex, I do pretty much the same thing as you do, although I use the “comment” feature of Word and do it on an electronic document that I keep in the same folder as the rest of the course stuff. I like Kerim’s idea, though my course runs mainly via email rather than a website, which makes this a bit trickier. I do try to ask peopel at the end of the course if there were readings they particularly liked or disliked.

  4. That’s a good tip. I’ll take that on board for a future scenario in which I am responsible for a course (I work as a junior instructor at my university under the guidance of an associate professor). I also really like Kerim’s idea of this editable syllabus. It makes for a very dynamic environment that generates a certain involvement from your students (and hopefully a certain commitment).

  5. Wait a sec… Kerim thinks this idea would be better if we… added a wiki?!?! And just when I thought I was getting to know him…. 🙂

    Seriously though, a lot of notes on the syllabus are “too hard for students” or “should have done this”. I like using this as a private space to reflect on the class… I’m not sure I’m ready to get online yet…

  6. bq. At any rate it’s worked well for me—what tricks do other teachers use to help develop their classes?

    If it is not too patronizing to offer an observation from the other side of the syllabus—and I’ve never put together any syllabi beyond a couple of projects for courses in which I was enrolled, so I acknowledge I don’t know the real world difficulties of implementing them—but it surprises me how even veteran instructors commonly see the syllabus as little more than a list of chronologically ordered readings. Only after several years of university-level courses did I have an instructor who was explicit to the members of the class that the course syllabus was his contract with us. I think almost everyone in the class was amazed when at the beginning of one class period he asked us how we would feel about some specific adjustments to upcoming readings and assignments. He was very clear that it was our decision to allow him to make changes to what he had committed to. I think many of us had some version of the thought, “Oh my god, so this is what a healthy relationship feels like!” I say this because professors seem to be ever more vocal in their grumbling about the general inconsistency of students in terms of quality and punctuality of work while somehow being completely blind to how much they turn their students off by playing fast and loose with the course contents vis-à-vis the syllabus. Isn’t this what is meant by legitimation crisis?

  7. I do something very like the “next-time” syllabus, although I make the file title the projected date of the next time I’ll teach the class. Another trick I find extremely useful is to get anonymous daily feedback in written form from my students. I’ve learned that what *I* think went on in the class isn’t necessarily the same as my students’ experiences of it. At the end of most classes, I have the students grab a scratch piece of paper and write down 1) what they liked about that day’s class, that is, what went well and what they want me/us to keep on doing, and 2) any suggestions for how to make the class better. In addition to helping me fiddle with the class to improve it during the current semester, I tend to get quite useful information for what sorts of changes I should make for the next time around.

  8. MTBradlley – One reason ,may professors may not have been “explicit” about the idea of a syllabus as a contract is that this is a relatively recent development and one that many of us are ambivalent if not dismayed about. One consequence is that syllabi become “defensive”: they attempt to anticipate all contingencies and protect the instructor from a possible complaint. Another is that it is harder to make changes that might be for the better: it’s safer to perform the terms of the contract in case a few people might complain, even if many would prefer change.

    More globally, seeing the syllabus as a contract seems to establish a relationship of “negative reciprocity” between students and the professor–the assumption is that the best relationship is obtained by each guarding their interests, rather than it being a relationship of mutual trust.

    The best class I’ve ever taken, on the other hand, was improvised from week to week based on the discussions the previous week, allowing us to explore the directions we were most interested in under the guidance of the professor, who gave us a syllabus on the last day of class so we would have a record and an explication of the logics underlying our reading.

  9. In the course in question I experienced the syllabus-as-contract as the rule of law in contrast to, say, wage employment of the sort in which the employer faces no consequence when they pay legally mandated overtime at their own discretion as well as unfailingly docking their employees for every infraction.

    I get that there’s more than one way to structure a class but isn’t it a good idea to be quote explicit unquote about what the structuring principle is? For example, you suggest that a syllabus inhibits both Professor Knows Best and free form interaction. But when an instructor is the commissar sometimes and an attendee at (a Quaker) Meeting at others the course is going to tank. One positive of an equitable syllabus-as-contract is that it helps prevent that sort of situation.

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