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Creating a syllabus for a new course: The answer-seeking method

A few months ago, University Affairs (the premiere higher education magazine in Canada) asked me if I would be willing to write something for them. I wrote about how I use storytelling techniques to create a syllabus. The syllabus-writing-as-storytelling (SWAS) method works very well when you know EXACTLY the kind of course you will be teaching. Using the SWAS method would be very simple if I were teaching any of the public policy courses I used to teach at UBC, or any of the environmental politics, global environmental politics or Latin American environmental politics courses I taught there too.

Syllabusing (syllabus building)

But that didn’t happen in 2013.

When I was asked to start teaching again (I got a one-year release from teaching when I arrived to CIDE), I was tasked with two courses: First, State and Local Government (2013-2014) and Regional Development (2014-2015). My first thought was “oh, great… I now have to create two new courses and I have no clue what I want to teach”. Bear in mind, I study subnational politics and governance, but I had never needed to teach Federalism or Subnational Politics, let alone a course in State and Local Government. Same with Regional Development. I do economic geography, spatial analysis and public policy, but I had never combined them in a course. These courses are what I call “area courses” (e.g. not specific to public policy, or political science per se).

So what did I do? I started asking myself questions. That’s why I call this method “answer-seeking”. The first thing I wanted to know was “what exactly should I be teaching in a State and Local Government course?”. I figured the best technique I could use was attempting to answer these questions. Below you will find a sample of the kind of questions I asked myself to create this course:

  • What exactly does subnational politics entail?
  • What types of governments do we have?
  • What types of relationships do these governments have with each other?
  • How are the types of governments (and the levels of governments) relating to each other?
  • How do the different branches of government (executive, legislative, judiciary) relate to each other and at which different levels (state, municipal, federal)?
  • How do governments at the municipal level deal with governance issues that cross different scales?
  • What kinds of new developments in state and local government scholarship are coming along?
  • What kind of political science and public policy scholarship applies specifically to subnational levels?
  • Which journals publish stuff at the subnational level?

What I did next was to start researching the answers to my own self-posed questions. In doing so, I started crafting a trajectory of what the course would be looking like:

  1. Governments and governance
  2. The executive at all three levels
  3. The legislative at all three levels
  4. The judiciary at all three levels
  5. Vertical and horizontal interactions across government levels and branches
  6. Subnational politics and policy (and different areas of policy)
  7. Metropolitan governance, intermunicipal cooperation
  8. Cooperation across sectors: industry, academia, non-profit sector relations with the government at all three levels
  9. Polycentric governance
  10. New developments in state and local government

Having a relatively large followership on Twitter and belonging to the Political Scientists Facebook group helped me too, because I could ask questions to my followers on specific topics, and authors. Furthermore, since I adjust my courses’ syllabi for gender and under-represented minorities’ scholarship, I had to revisit the topics to ensure that I had opened spaces and opportunities for URMS. You can check the outcome of this exercise, in the most recent version (2015) of my State and Local Government syllabus.

As time has gone by, and the more I have taught the course, I have learned more about which topics are relevant and how my students react to specific assigned reading materials and activities. Therefore, for the next iterations, I don’t seek to answer questions, but I instead use more of a storytelling approach, which you can read about here.

Hopefully my method can be useful to those of you facing new preps!

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