mapping the college curriculum across 1M+ syllabi
January 22, 2016 5:15 PM   Subscribe

The Open Syllabus Project is pleased to make the beta version of our Syllabus Explorer publicly available. The Explorer leverages a collection of over 1 million syllabi collected from university and departmental websites.

What a Million Syllabuses Can Teach Us

At present, the Syllabus Explorer is mostly a tool for counting how often texts are assigned over the past decade. There is something for everyone here. The traditional Western canon dominates the top 100, with Plato’s “Republic” at No. 2, “The Communist Manifesto” at No. 3, and “Frankenstein” at No. 5, followed by Aristotle’s “Ethics,” Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” “Oedipus” and “Hamlet.”
posted by betweenthebars (22 comments total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:35 PM on January 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

The tool itself looks pretty interesting, though I wasn't surprised by the top-ranked texts in my own field. But the project blog highlighted this priceless syllabus by Kieran Healy for "Social Theory Through Complaining". It starts with "Week 1, Introduction: This Has Nothing to do with my Research Interests" and just gets better from there.
posted by informavore at 5:49 PM on January 22, 2016 [21 favorites]

Every few months I go on a syllabus binge, looking for books on topics that are trusted by academics (in some crazy sub-sub-sub field). Some kind of syllabus ontology would make that easier. Or a search engine would make that even easier.
posted by wormwood23 at 5:56 PM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

I salute you, four professors who assigned Gershom Legman's magisterial history of the dirty joke. And especially the two of you who assigned Legman and Nouvelle Chinese Cooking in the same course.
posted by escabeche at 6:12 PM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh wait. Almost all of the "assigned with" choices are by authors, like Ms. Lee of Nouvelle Chinese Cooking, whose names are suspiciously close to "Legman" in the dictionary. I think there may be a certain amount of data cleaning needed.
posted by escabeche at 6:14 PM on January 22, 2016

My takeaway from an admittedly quick and cursory browse is just how annoyingly performative-bordering-on-the-narcissistic so many syllabi are.

It is almost--and I say this as someone whose only job since he finished graduate school has been to teach at a university (admittedly just composition and poetry, but whatever)--it is almost exactly as if a not-insubstantial percentage of academics view their syllabi as an opportunity to show other academics (and/or the tenure committee) how super awesome they are, rather than as an opportunity to provide important information to their students in a way that is useful, efficient and easily understood.*

I suspect I may not be cut out for this field.

*If you tell me, as more than one person has in the last few years, that your syllabus is "difficult" because you expect "intellectual rigor at all times," I will respond, as I have in the past, that you appear to have confused the concepts of "teaching" and "being a dick."

I really really may not be cut out for this.

posted by dersins at 9:45 PM on January 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

This is cool. I'm puzzled why math isn't a listed field though. The books are all there.
posted by Wemmick at 12:54 AM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

This makes me wish I didn't have a job and could just be a lady of leisure and read all the things. But at least I know what to do with my procrastination time, now that I've binge-watched Jessica Jones.
posted by Aravis76 at 4:07 AM on January 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

1      3,934      100.0      The Elements of Style
Jesus CHRIST. Will no one rid me of this dreadful book?
posted by languagehat at 7:16 AM on January 23, 2016 [8 favorites]

What would you assign instead, Hat?
posted by zamboni at 8:03 AM on January 23, 2016

My favorite book on computation theory is also the most commonly assigned book on computation theory, so I can rest easy now.

My favorite professor in college wrote his syllabi in the form a letter to the student -- one page, front and back -- that by being genuine, encouraging, honest, and enthusiastic always resulted in everyone reading the damn thing and actually knowing the late homework policy. He was the best.
posted by telegraph at 9:32 AM on January 23, 2016

Not a non-European/American author in the first 200 on the list.
posted by el io at 11:08 AM on January 23, 2016

St Augustine's Confessions (28) is an important text for Europe, but I don't think you can call him a European author.
posted by Aravis76 at 11:28 AM on January 23, 2016

I'm glad this project was achievable, after so many syllabi have been buried in the dusty darkness of course management systems (virtual learning environments).
posted by doctornemo at 11:35 AM on January 23, 2016

> What would you assign instead, Hat?

Just give 'em a few basic pointers about writing (you can even take the few sensible ones from the goddam book as long as you leave out the bullshit and alleged "grammatical rules") and red-pencil their compositions until they figure it out. And don't even mention the word "passive" unless you know what it is yourself. And I mean really know.
posted by languagehat at 11:45 AM on January 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think all university students should learn the Economist style guide. I'm not even joking.
posted by el io at 12:10 PM on January 23, 2016

My godfather is a retired American history professor who's written a few books on pretty niche topics, and I searched for him first thing. His books are on a couple dozen syllabuses! This is so cool!
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:24 PM on January 23, 2016

Also I am going to be browsing the Anthropology tag for awesome ethnographies to add to my readin' list
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:27 PM on January 23, 2016

Some of their data seems terrible; the top 10 books in Civil Engineering include Canadian Tort Law, Fixed Income Securities and Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing, with the #1 apparently an imaginary work by an English professor (main focus: "nineteenth century British literature") at Boston University that is so obscure it's not on Amazon, not findable via Google and she does not list it on her CV. That's... rather different than the books we used when I took Civil Engineering 15 years ago.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:40 PM on January 23, 2016

Yeah, the national level data is funny as well - if I filter by New Zealand, there are a huge number of books that relate to the US, and very few that relate to New Zealand. And there aren't any NZ universities listed in the list of institutions.

I wonder how they're finding this material? I know that at my university the syllabi are somewhat buried, you have to go into a PDF of the course outline, and somewhere in there would be a text book or two, and perhaps a list of suggested readings, which could be 1 or 2, or 20 texts, depending on the lecturer's preference. It would be quite hard to determine whether something was required, highly recommended, or included because it might be of interest to someone doing deeper reading.
posted by Pink Frost at 4:01 PM on January 23, 2016

I wonder how they're finding this material?

Basically, they've just scraped whatever is available in public, in addition to using a previously-existing database (they discuss their methods on the FAQ page). By their own admission, this is a teeny-tiny drop in the bucket of extant syllabi, which means that the results are wonky enough right now that you can't draw any real conclusions from them yet.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:33 AM on January 24, 2016

Homeboy - Am I missing something, how did you filter down to civil engineering?
posted by stratastar at 3:40 PM on January 25, 2016

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