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Citing Syllabi

5167905071_e42568a44f_zMy first experience in the syllabi bakery was years ago while doing some tech support for a certain well-known scholar. She was staring at the beginnings of a reading list on her office computer while I tried to restore a dead laptop. Suddenly, she jumped to her feet and began to browse through her impressive collection of books, ‘Agency,’ she mumbled, ‘I need to assign something on agency.’ The professor was still on a search for agency when I left.

Wow, that looks hard, I thought. Having read so much and so deeply over the years on similar topics, how do profs putting together a new class remember where the good stuff is and, more importantly, just enough of the good stuff that it fit the recipe for the course? Surely designing an excellent course from scratch like this requires a huge amount of work, and years of tweaking. Later, during my PhD, I learned there were other ways.

I noticed patterns and interesting developments in the syllabi of advisors and their former students. Grad school was also a hotbed of syllabi swapping, the knowledge germs of assigned readings, assignment types, course policies, and week topics all spreading quickly. By graduation, my own pack-rat syllabi collection dozens of megabytes in size had gone well beyond topics I’d likely teach to include pretty much any topic I would love to take a course on some day or by profs whose teaching I admired. These are fantastic sources. As Brian put it in a post on showing your work that fits just as well for syllabi, ‘I’ve always believed that pedagogy is simply a fancier name for “borrowing and remixing,”’ and a commenter noted that, thanks to a filing cabinet full of syllabi in the department, they were ‘able to see and modify/adapt/remix assignments from other instructors at various types of institutions.’

Not everyone feels the same. In a posting by George on sharing syllabi one reader is quoted as feeling uncomfortable with sharing, noting the huge amount of work that goes into the design of a course. The feeling of ownership is not the only concern. When I told one professor that my module handbooks (course syllabi, but often a longer document in many places in the UK and some other countries) were on github (here and here), he told me that this was fine for young scholars like myself, but gosh, if he put his online, the whole world would know how professor so-and-so was assigning his students ancient material and that he was way behind the recent scholarship.

For those of us who do want to share, there is another concern: acknowledgement. I think Derek Bruff puts it very well in a comment on George’s posting: “The acknowledgement issue is a delicate one. We have standard ways to acknowledge the research and scholarship done by others (citations and such), but we don’t have any standards or norms around attribution of teaching materials or methodologies. I kind of wish we did, since giving credit where credit is due (a) is generally an ethical thing to do and (b) might result in better institutional recognition of contributions to the teaching profession.” A similar discussion is found in the comments to Brian’s post on Forking your Syllabus. Katherine D. Harris has discussed the issue of Acknowledgments on Syllabi in a nice posting which also highlights the many different ways we can learn from these pedagogical gold nuggets. As she points out, with examples, a growing number of online syllabi do include an acknowledgements section. I will be adding some to my own courses as I revise and create new ones this year.

Beyond giving credit where credit is due, I wonder if this practice might also feed further sharing as there is greater recognition that many of us already build courses through a process of inspiration and borrowing, rather than only as a solitary act of bookshelf browsing and assignment tweaking, as I’m sure some do. If so, how might we make this process easier, both for those who want to acknowledge the source of inspiration, and for those who want to be recognized? “Forking a syllabus” on GitHub is one thing, as it copies the files over directly into a new repository, but for a number of reasons it is not the easiest solution for creating some of the beautiful syllabi I have seen out there.

I can think of a few proposals to get the conversation started:

  • When you write your syllabus, include the year and semester it was taught. This can serve as a version number, and will allow different versions to be acknowledged accordingly.

  • Consider uploading your syllabus somewhere relatively stable online, to reduce the chances of link rot or keep versions alive online where search engines can find them. Upload, for example, to archive.org or to github.com, or somewhere your university it unlikely to take it down. Remember LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe).

  • Consider adding a Creative Commons or other open license to your syllabus somewhere explicitly so that, beyond “fair use” and the un-copyrightable nature of ideas, others can feel comfortable adopting and modifying (with attribution) larger chunks of, say, your assignment descriptions or class policies.

  • Consider putting the above info in a convenient meta-data section at the bottom of your syllabus so that it can be easily found, or as an additional file alongside it if it is in a repository (for example, on github). Hopefully, if this catches on, it might further facilitate the kind of larger scale work by projects such as the Open Syllabus Project. Other useful metadata to include there might be some keywords related to your course, its level of difficulty, the expected size of the class, whether it is a lecture, seminar, etc. course, and other basic info that might found elsewhere throughout the syllabus such as the instructor, university, course title, and version.

  • As sharing of syllabi becomes more common, we will be more conscious of “other readers” beyond our students of the document. One question those readers will often ask themselves, as they decide whether they want to adopt some of your readings, policies, or assignment types, or other material is: did it work? What worked well, and what needed more refinement? The answer to these questions can sometimes be detected in the changes from one syllabus to the next when multiple years are available, but a “changelog” of some kind indicating what bugs were fixed and new features added can be useful, even if, like the “changelog” of computer code, it is just a quick list of bullet points.

  • When acknowledging other syllabi, be specific, and if a digital version of your syllabi exists, include a link (but also enough words from the title and year to enable a targeted search if the link no longer works).

All of this involves effort that you may decide is not worth it, but it elevates our teaching and further adds value to a document that reflects a great deal of work and thought. Maybe it will even help you find a bit more agency.

Do you often find inspiration in the syllabi of other courses? Have you thought about adding acknowledgements to your syllabi? Are there different things you would suggest for the list above?

Image is “Tip of the Hat” Creative Commons licensed by Micah Taylor

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