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August 06, 2010

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Howard Katz

To the new professor - Take your tentative syllabus, the one you have been working on this summer, and cut 25% from it.
Rookie professors almost always over-estimate how much they can effectively cover.

Orin Kerr

Howard, that is excellent advice.

Tim Zinnecker

Howard, your advice probably applies to the first draft of the final exam, too. Yes?

Mary Dudziak

A tiny addition to this great list, on your last point about a syllabus. My advice is to have a detailed syllabus, but do not put dates on it. And of course indicate that the syllabus is subject to change.

A detailed syllabus shows students that you know where you're going, and you're in command of the course. As a newbie, you're likely to think that you can cover much more than you will actually be able to. If you have dates on the syllabus, students will think you're behind if you cover the material more slowly, which you're likely to do. Without dates, you can more seamlessly edit the syllabus as you go along to bring it down to a scope you can actually cover.

I've been teaching for a very long time, and I still hand out detailed syllabi with no dates.

Orin Kerr

I do it differently than Mary. I have a full syllabus with all 39 classes on it: Each class is described in a paragraph or two, that describes the subject, goals, and purpose of that class. I use class numbers (12, 13) instead of dates because schedule changes happen (a class might get cancelled, there might be a snow day, etc.), but I maintain the schedule as it appears in the syllabus.

One key to doing that is to have a sense of the pace you bring to a class. For example, my natural teaching style is to cover two cases, usually about 15 pages of reading, for each 55 minute class. I might start with a 5 or 10 minute introduction, in which I discuss the history and context of the subject and review the black letter law. I then turn to the first case, and spend 20 minutes on it; then the second case, and spend 20 minutes on it; and then spend the last 5-10 minutes with a review, some practical or theoretical tips, and taking questions. Once you have a sense of your timing, you can assign coverage on a per-class basis by knowing the number of pages and cases you want to cover. (I should add that 15 pages is an average; it might be 10 pages for new 1Ls and 20 pages for 3Ls.)

Howard Katz

Yes to Tim regarding the exam. Newbies want to stuff additional issues into an essay question. Instead, they should be "de-contenting" 9to use a word from the auto industry of the '80s) - taking some issues off the table, removing that fourth essay that won't change anyone's grade after the first three, etc.

As for the syllabus, I tend to agree with Mary's position. The first time through the course, it's hard for a rookie to know how quickly they will go. And if you fall short of the detailed syllabus pace, either students think there is something wrong with them or with you. It also creates artificial pressure on the prof to move forward, even if you aren't sure you've completed your teaching of a topic. An experienced prof can do what Orin suggests - but the first time through it's tougher to anticipate pace. But if you don't put class numbers or dates, it is extremely important to have your own idea of where you should be, and to check against it and adjust accordingly.

Having said that, I will say that students do like more precision in the syllabus rather than less. For that matter, they prefer few deviations from the order of the book. And this is true EVEN IF you spend time explaining WHY you deviated, and EVEN IF it results in less work or greater clarity for them.

To introduce one more bit of advice for the new profs (and hopefully it isn't too late), it is very useful to try to get some overview of the whole course in prepping it. Doesn't have to be detailed - a "nutshell" or "essentials" is enough. you aren't looking for every rule; you just want to see where your course will be going, and how the pieces might fit together. Too many new profs start doing detailed prep and slog through week by week, but have no idea what topics are coming up. If you have a cursory view of the whole course, you have a better idea of when to answer a question and when to say "we'll get to that later".

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