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Developing an entire course around a specific research project

Those of you who know me well will remember that there are very few things I love more than developing syllabi. Despite the fact that I once thought writing up a syllabus was an inappropriate activity for a doctoral comprehensive exam (I have changed my mind over the last decade), I love syllabusing. I adore having to choose between various reading materials, reading broadly and deeply and selecting themes, topics and questions I want to address during the class.


One thing I pride about and do very well: develop printed reading packets out of my syllabi.
Not to worry: I also create a digital version

I always design my syllabi with an ulterior motive, and I am not ashamed to admit it. If there is a topic that I am particularly vested in, I make sure to somehow insert it into my syllabi. Coincidentally, yesterday (December 27th), I came across this tweet, which also summarizes my own approach to new course syllabus design:

In response to Dr. Perry’s question, I shared my approach to new course preparations and how I develop an entire course around my own research interests. If you participate in my writing groups, you will know that I already thought about this and made a suggestion to participants in my writing group. I jokingly said that “I was mercenary about new course preparation – if I am going to prepare an entirely new course, I am going to at least get a publication out of it”.

I did it, with one of my doctoral seminars, this Fall 2020.

Before designing the course syllabus, I surveyed what my students knew about research design, qualitative methods and comparative methods. I realized that I had to develop a syllabus that included everything from case selection to explanation to comparison to qualitative methods. While I was lucky that a lot of scholars helped me with guest lectures, I designed the entire syllabus, and obviously I also led seminar discussions. Re-reading so much about comparative research design really made writing these two book chapters extremely easy and seamless.

Had I not been asked to teach this doctoral seminar on Comparative Methods, I probably would have had to spend at least a month re-reading, thinking through, mulling over and pondering the literature on comparison as a method, and THEN write these chapters. Way more complicated.

Did I teach EXACTLY what my students needed? Of course I did. Sure thing I did. BUT in preparing the syllabus, doing the readings alongside my students, leading the discussion, conversing with the guest speakers, my own thinking about comparative methods got much more refined. Am I going to get a publication out of teaching Mixed Methods next year? You bet I am.

Will I write a paper on policy analysis? Possibly. But my Public Policy Analysis class is undergraduate, so I have less flexibility on what I can include and exclude. I need to give basics. It’s much easier to create a new syllabus that will provide you with an opportunity to read the literature you need to produce a new paper with graduate (Masters, PhD) or advanced undergraduate seminars. Much less flexibility when you need to teach a survey course.

Federalism scholarship by women

To summarize: I design courses based on several criteria:
– what my students need in terms of content, competencies, core skills and “lay of the land”,
– what *I* want to learn better (or refresh my knowledge of),
– what my students are interested in,
– what my current writing schedule and program looks like.

I hope that by sharing this approach, you might find some good ideas on how you can craft a syllabus for a new course in a way that might give you an additional product (beyond the wonderful learning that you and your students will achieve).

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