Academic Cog and Dr. Koshary both wonder how interview committees understand/evaluate an applicant's proposed courses. I'll try to answer that question from the perspective of someone at a smaller comprehensive college with a 3-3 teaching load.
To begin with, we've never expected telepathy; if we did, then I wouldn't have survived my MLA interview. When asked what one course I'd love to each, I happily came back with "A course on The Ring and the Book!" Which, it became clear after I arrived, would not go well. Nevertheless, the committee seemed to appreciate that I at least had an idea about an upper-division seminar.
I'd suggest prepping at least one introductory survey, one upper-division course in your field, and, if the department offers graduate courses, a graduate course. Be prepared to show that you can teach something other than your doctoral dissertation. (This is extremely important anywhere, but especially if you're interviewing at a college like mine, where you will likely spend a good chunk of your time in service courses.) If you're expected to teach freshman comp, then you might also want one of those handy. My own experience as an interviewee, as well as an interviewer, was that it was a good idea to have a basic spiel prepared about each course--its objectives, the authors, and some specific texts.
If you're a beginning instructor, feel free to talk about what you've learned. In my interview for my current job, when I had exactly one semester's worth of experience, I had to ruefully describe my discovery that upper-division students couldn't handle quite that much Burke, along with my solution to the crisis.
When it comes to looking at sample syllabi, I usually keep the following things in mind:
- Relative balance of canonical/non-canonical, fictional/non-fictional, and literary/critical texts. What does the instructor want to teach when? I'd expect more secondary texts--theoretical, historical, etc.--at the upper-division or graduate level, just as I'd expect more canonical texts in an introductory survey. Again, however, that depends on the nature and purpose of the course.
- What is the course? Some courses tell stories; others don't. Even so, I should be able to figure out what the logic of the course is. Introductory survey of major authors? Nineteenth-century Gothic novel? Victorian Medievalism? Does the level of specialization fit the course number? How much pre-existing knowledge and experience, that is, does the course expect?
- Does it look teachable? Surely the students are not expected to read the entirety of The Ring and the Book by Monday. And does the instructor really plan to grade that many tiny projects...in three different classes?
- Some awareness of the student demographics. Or: rock, meet hard place. Many of our students are slightly older, have families, and/or are working part- or even full-time to support themselves. At some point, the syllabi have to take this into account. Are students expected to read a triple-decker every week...or every three weeks? How many poems per session? Are the papers reasonably spaced? Again, I would expect a more intense reading program for graduate students. (In a 600-level MA seminar, for example, I have expected students to read anywhere from eight to ten Victorian novels in a single semester. Even emphasizing shorter novels, that's still much more work than I would ask of undergrads.)
- Independent research projects. What kinds of projects? How much supervision on the instructor's part? Are there smaller papers/assignments leading up to the large project, or just a big paper at the end? Is there any research instruction built into the course?
- Student involvement. We teach smaller courses--even the biggest usually top out at around thirty-five or forty--so even the big lecture courses don't need to be anonymous. Does the syllabus show signs that the applicant is aware of this? Are there provisions for group work and other forms of participation? I would take it as given that a graduate course in literature would be discussion-oriented.
- Dollar signs. When I was at the University of Chicago, I had the habit of giving my classes alternative titles--"The Infinite Course," "The Course for No Reason," "The Course with No Books(!)," etc. One quarter, I had "The Financially Unacceptable Course." I gather that some professors have been known to swoop down and criticize applicants for some heinous violation of textbook morality, which is not what this is about. But, put simply, have you shown some awareness of how much the books will cost? Obviously, it's hard to avoid higher prices in graduate courses.