The Agony and the Ecstasy of Creating Syllabi by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

Grace Yia-Hei KaoThe start of the Spring 2014 semester is right around the corner, which means that many academics like me are madly trying to put the finishing touches on their syllabi.

The process of doing so has always been equal parts exciting and stress-inducing. Right now, however, I am feeling the pain. Why?

Let me speak first to the joy.

What I cherish most about creating syllabi is the constant opportunity for renewal. As a professor with a 2/2 teaching load (i.e., I teach 4 courses per year) and with academic freedom to teach what I want in concert with my institution’s curricular needs, I get to design new classes, reconfigure courses I’ve taught previously in light of new scholarship (or new topics or new pedagogical techniques I’d like to try in the classroom), and of course do it all in the context of a different crop of students each time.

Other perks include consulting with colleagues at different institutions about how they’ve designed similar courses and receiving free or greatly discounted examination copies of the books I’m considering adopting. That twice-yearly deluge of new texts feels like Christmas!

What, then, of the pain? Beyond the normal stress of having to meet deadlines under the constraints of time (after all, students should rightfully receive their syllabi by the first day of class), I have always felt the burden of responsibility at the syllabus-construction stage. To be sure, the anxiety I feel about the task is not attached to any insecurities about my teaching abilities, it’s tied to the heavy obligation I feel to my students and to the field to “do it well.”

To illustrate, of the many ways that a course like “Introduction to Christian Ethics” or “Religion and Human Rights” could be taught (e.g., thematically, chronologically, using a “greatest hits” or a “voices from the margins”  or a “both/and” approach, focusing more on theory or applied ethical case-studies, etc.), I must in every case decide on what I think will be the best way given my sense of how the field is constituted, my strengths, and the needs and abilities of the particular constellation of students who are likely to enroll. Discerning all of that is not easy and there can be real losses to the choices I’ve made to further those ends, however reflective or conscientious I’ve been on the matter.

One of the greatest losses I feel is in the limitation of the topics and texts that can be covered. That can’t be helped, for only so much material can be absorbed within a 13-15 week semester. I know that when I am making cuts, I am engaging implicitly or explicitly in the process of canon-formation. As readers of this (feminism and religion) blog know, any talk of canon is talk of power. Who or what to include? Who or what to exclude? On what basis does one make those judgments?

Alas, the blog must end and the class prep must resume, for my Spring 2014 syllabi for “Feminist Ethics” and “Ethical Theory: Metaethics” won’t write themselves. Here’s to all students and fellow academics for a successful Spring 2014 term!

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics at Claremont School of Theology  and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and is working on two co-edited book projects–one on Asian American Christian Ethics (under contract with Baylor University Press) with Ilsup Ahn, the other on a theological exploration of women’s lives with Rebecca Todd Peters. You can learn more about her life and work on her personal website.


Categories: Academy, Ethics, General, power

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11 replies

  1. As I walk in your shoes, my sister scholar, in the throes of syllabi preparation, I appreciate your post and the time you took away from other things to do it!


  2. Boy, does that bring back memories. I thought I’d be living forever in a nice academic womb and teaching
    Shakespeare, but my life didn’t work out that way. Sigh. Thanks for the flashback.


  3. What a wonderful idea: canon formation in feminist ethics! That gives me hope for all of us. And Grace, you don’t have to do it perfectly. From what I’ve seen of your blogging here, the classes will be wonderful.


  4. From what I see here I would love to take your classes. Here’s to a wonderful semester. Blessed be.


  5. I teach at a college that has five sessions per academic year and I teach two courses per session (sometimes three). That means a lot of syllabus prep in the course of a year! I’m teaching American Social Policy right now and I can identify with what you say here. I teach on a military base and weaving in feminist ethics and a partnership model, care-based approach to life/work in this context is a constant dance between agony and ecstasy for sure!


  6. Talkbirth – keep dancing and thanks for sharing your story!


  7. The least I ever taught was 6 courses per semester, the most 4 per semester, in your own state university system a full load for non-tenure track faculty is 5 courses per semester. You are very lucky with such a light teaching load.


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