Anatomy of a Course Teaching Russian History

Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 1 (nuts and bolts)

This is part of a continuing series entitled “Anatomy of a Course,” which will be updated throughout Fall 2017. Click on the “Anatomy of a Course” category heading to see all the relevant posts.

If you haven’t been in a university classroom in the Age of Assessment, you may not realize how large and bulky syllabi have gotten. Accreditation institutions now require us to post student learning outcomes and federal credit hour requirements, colleges insist on other items to be included, and before you know it, the syllabus has become a booklet. As a result, I’m going to split my discussion of syllabus construction in three. Today, I’ll do the “nuts and bolts” part of the syllabus, follwed by a post on course assignments, followed by the post on the course schedules and readings. Part one of my draft syllabus is posted at the following URL, which you can refer to as you read through this post:

Lafayette College requires (at least) the following elements on each of its syllabi:

  • course objectives
  • learning outcomes
  • grading policy
  • academic honesty statement
  • course bibliography/reading list
  • federal credit hour compliance statement

Let me begin with the learning outcomes, as there have already been a couple of questions about this element of a modern syllabus. My own take on assessment is that the massive move in this direction by accreditation agencies has had some benefits, though those benefits have been limited in nature and were probably not worth the gazillion hours spent by professors, administrators, and evaluators over recent years. But I’ll focus on the positives here. It was certainly useful at the departmental level to force individual professors and our department collectively to articulate what we wanted to accomplish. For this course, the first two learning outcomes (“Describe the key features of late imperial Russia, the Soviet Union, and post-Soviet Russia,” “Construct an historical explanation based on causal reasoning”) are linked to our first departmental learning outcome (

The second two learning outcomes are more student-focused than bureaucracy-focused. I have them there so we can go over them on the first day as I begin the long process of setting expectations. I’ll have more on that in a moment, but I use this moment in the period of syllabus introduction as an opportunity to explain why I’m asking them to read whole books and why so much of their reading is fiction and poetry.

You’ll have to excuse me if I get a bit preachy on the subject of reading entire books. In my view, one of the core reasons why a college education is important is that it trains people to think in complex ways, to be able to keep the thread of a long argument and to understand the architectures of those arguments. I don’t know if these skills are atrophying in an age when the bulk of the reading that people do is in the form of short selections on screens, but I think they probably are. Indeed, professors often face explicit push-back from students when they refuse to predigest a tough argument for them (“we should just read excerpts…”) A relatively small number of disciplines remain as “book” disciplines now, and so it is incumbent upon historians to keep the faith. Thankfully, members of the Lafayette History Department all agree that students should learn how to read complicated books and to comprehend large amounts of reading, but it requires constant explanations to students as to why they are reading so much in our classes.

There are several reasons why using “literature as a source for insight” is a learning outcome here. I want to engage students with primary sources in English, of course, and I want them to do that with books (preferably in print). Literature isn’t the only way to do this (I’ve used Stalinism as a Way of Life to great effect in the past, for instance), but it’s a good way. Plus, I love the authors and poets I assign and am able to connect them to my big course themes throughout the semester. Finally, since I’d been teaching this course with literature for years before our curricular revision, it made sense to have this meet the “Humanities” requirement as well as the “Social Science” requirement of the Common Course of Study. I try to keep an even balance as a result.

I’ll close out this post with a brief description of the “Federal Credit Hour Requirement.” My understanding is that this requirement was imposed by the Obama Administration in order to try to crack down on online diploma mills, but it is now a requirement for our accreditors to examine as well. At Lafayette, I think most faculty members meet this requirement through an affirmative statement that their course meets this particular requirement. I don’t know how other institutions deal with this, but I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments section.

I am much more explicit than I am required to be in regards to the ways my courses meet the Federal Credit Hour Requirement. Again, I wanted to use this moment of discussing the syllabus to talk further about workload with them. Student and faculty workload expectations are quite different, not just at my institution, but in my understanding virtually across the board in American higher education. I think that being a full time student should mean working full time on your courses. Our students take 4 courses a semester, so let’s say 10 hours a week per course would make this a full time course. Most students, however, think that anything more than a couple of hours a week per course is out of control. There is a big gap between these expectations, so I use the credit hour requirement (which is slightly more complicated than just hours per week, as you can see) to show them a) that both I and the feds believe that “full time” means full time and b) that they can do this work quite easily if they budget the proper amount of time to do so. Most students read much more quickly than 20 pages per hour, for instance, and they can write a draft page in less than the hour I budget for them. So this is another way that I try to use an external mandate for a good purpose on my syllabus. Does the explanation work? For some, I think so, but definitely not for all, as complaints about workload certainly remain in student evaluations.

Finally, a note on the ban on electronics in the classroom. When I sit in a faculty meeting or conference panel and see many screens devoted to a compulsive checking of social media, I know for sure that the same will be going on in my classroom. It’s not even personal, it’s a dopamine hit. So I just enforce the electronics rule as best as I can for everyone’s sake

By Joshua Sanborn

David M. '70 and Linda Roth Professor of History
Department of History
Lafayette College (Pennsylvania, USA)

2 replies on “Anatomy of a Course: Syllabus construction, pt. 1 (nuts and bolts)”

Joshua, thanks for sharing your draft syllabus and the logic of your thinking behind it. Thanks also for the “heads up” about the Federal Credit Hour requirement. We haven’t seen this at our school yet, but I am sure our accrediting agency will be raising in our next round of meetings. I like the way you have used it to explain to the students your expectations in terms of the course workload.

Student perceptions of course workload are very interesting and I have only recently come to realize how different their expectations are from my own. This would actually be a useful topic for a conference panel on teaching at the AHA or ASEEES. I don’t think there is much research on this, especially for a discipline like history where there is still an expectation that students will read books and scholarly articles instead of textbooks or course readers.

One thing I would suggest with your student learning outcomes is to physically line them up on the page with the assignments (or assessments) that will show how they achieve those outcomes. I found this really useful way to explain to the students what they are learning and how they will know they have learned it.

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