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I've been hired to teach two courses as an adjunct professor in the US (my first time teaching). I would like to review syllabi previously used for these courses, simply to inform my thinking on these courses. Is this an inappropriate request? It is likely I would ask the department head's administrative assistant for these documents. (As far as I can tell, they are not available online.)

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    Perfectly reasonable. The syllabus is a public document. When I was at universstiday it was all in the annual Handbook. – Marquis of Lorne Jul 21 at 4:37
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    As my boss told me on the day I started work, only an amateur starts every task from the beginning – Phil Freedenberg Jul 21 at 15:35
  • Can you give a reason why that might be inappropriate? – Karl Jul 22 at 2:37
  • It's definitely appropriate - it would actually be inappropriate not to request/view these materials before designing your course, particularly as you are new to teaching and it can be hard to pitch at the right level. Consistency between this course and previous versions is valuable for students (gauging content, difficulty, expected attainment) and other professors (who may assume knowledge from this course in further study). – David258 Jul 22 at 13:28
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Actually, it is quite appropriate. You could also ask for a list of the professors who previously taught the course. You could then ask them if they are willing to share materials to help bootstrap the course.

In fact, the administrative assistant might not have easy access directly, partly due to the pandemic. But the professors would normally retain their materials.

You might also find recent course information online if each course has a website or if professors have websites with course material.

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    In fact it would seem somewhat inappropriate to not review previous syllabi – Azor Ahai -- he him Jul 19 at 16:17
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    +1 Moreover, it would be inappropriate for the person you ask to say no (unless they don't have them). – JeffE Jul 19 at 21:57
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    To make it more explicit, sometimes the department may expect the course to cover the same material as previous years, especially if it's a prerequisite to other courses. – usul Jul 19 at 22:37
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    For what it's worth, my daughter did her undergraduate work in the same department that I did mine (32 years earlier). When she headed off to school, I dug around and found some of my first year notes that I'd squirrelled away in boxes. It happened that the calendars of the two years lined up perfectly - the result of which was that her first day of class was the same day and date as mine. In one of the classes, she looked at my notes after the first day - it was the same course. She did that periodically during the semester. Each day covered the same material in roughly the same way! – Flydog57 Jul 20 at 2:11
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    @Flydog57 I don't think that's possible. Identical fall calendars can happen 33 years apart, but not 32. – nanoman Jul 20 at 5:24
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The first thing I did when asked to teach already existing courses was to ask the previous lecturers for copies of syllabi, teaching materials, exams, tutorials....

Probably depends a little on office politics, but I was just handed everything in a nice manner and took over from there.

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  • To be honest, the second thing I have done when teaching already existing courses was to drop most of the previous syllabus and build my own thing (unless badly stressed for time). It turns out that teaching is a very personal activity, where it is actually quite hard to fit in somebody else's way of understanding or explaining a specific subject. So, while it is very useful to get a feel for what has been done, it also turns out that you're likely to end up rebuilding the whole course anyway (unless you're standing in for just a year, maybe). – jfmoyen Jul 22 at 6:40
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It is completely appropriate, and can be valuable in the context of the greater curriculum. When I used to teach classes, I would ask the previous lecturer for the syllabus. Most importantly, I would also speak to whomever is teaching a follow-on class to see if there's something that should be added or removed based on the changes to the general curriculum.
As an example, I was teaching a sophomore electrical engineering course as an introduction to analog circuits. I ended up spending a week on the actual device physics because students were going to be required to have either device physics or analog design as a follow-on.

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I do the adjunct hiring for my community college department, and we have a certain set of problems that we see repeatedly. One is people teaching a course at the wrong intellectual level (usually too low). Another is not assigning enough work or not giving enough feedback. I would not want a newly hired person to go to an administrative assistant, get a syllabus from one of those people, and then replicate that.

I suggest that you start by talking to the person who hired you and who will be making the decision on whether to rehire you later. Say that you're interested in seeing what people have done in the past when they did a good job of teaching this course. If you said that to me, I would respond by handing you a sample syllabus and also telling you in writing about my expectations. (Well, actually, I would have done those things without your having to ask.)

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A possibility to consider in addition to the other answers: there may be a syllabus template, and you may be required to use it. So yes, ask for existing documents.

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You should also check to see what classes have your class as a pre-requisite. You want to ensure your students are prepared for what follows.

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  • With regard to prerequisites or certifications, the responsibility falls on the department to inform the instructor about content that must be covered. The instructor is not responsible to assure anything further than that such content is covered. – Jeffrey J Weimer Jul 21 at 15:00
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    @JeffreyJWeimer, while that seems like something that ought to be true, it doesn't seem like something that's likely to be true at most universities and is probably up to most departments or colleges to decide how to handle. I'd at least ask my department. "Is this a required course? What are the required elements? Is there a sample or recent syllabus? Etc." If this course is a prereq. for something else, I'd want to see its syllabus, too, or talk to a prior instructor. – Bill Barth Jul 22 at 16:10
  • @JimM Nuances perhaps but, I would take out the "You should ..." and "You want to ..." directives in favor of "You can also ..." and "This can help you better prepare your students for what follows". – Jeffrey J Weimer Jul 22 at 16:33
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In the one department I have taught in, it was stated that you have to run the course along similar lines to previous/other instructors (some courses run w/ multiple sections so they need consistency). So absolutely, ask for the existing syllabi. And good luck with your first teaches!

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