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Git a Fork in My Syllabus, It’s Done

Beautiful Fork

Last month at the annual Computers and Writing Conference, I participated on a roundtable about the role of computational literacy in the field—and in the humanities more generally. One of the points I made during the wide-ranging discussion (and on the backchannel as well) is that world of software development can provide humanists with “actionable metaphors.” I had in mind the collaborative nature of open source code, as well as the necessary emphasis in programming on revision, both exemplified by the code sharing platform GitHub. Even more specifically, I was thinking about the recent ProfHacker posts by Brian and Lincoln about sharing teaching material on GitHub and allowing others to “fork” it.

One of my co-panelists on this roundtable was Karl Stolley, who places his syllabuses on GitHub (and whom Lincoln mentions in his ProfHacker post). Inspired by Karl’s example, I’ve githubbed the most recent version of my videogame studies course, which I teach through the Honors College at George Mason University. The class guidelines, calendar, and assignments are all there, free for anyone to fork and revise: https://github.com/samplereality/videogame-studies.

Concerns about Githubbing a Syllabus

A few nagging thoughts occurred to me as I was preparing my syllabus for GitHub, which I share here:

  • Is it worth it for me? This is the most essential question. All of my course material is already available online, mostly using WordPress as my platform. What is the value of duplicating the same material on GitHub? My material is formatted quite nicely (I like to think), with images, active links, and so on. Because GitHub only uses plain text, I had to convert my syllabus to text, using markdown to preserve at least some formatting and the hyperlinks. This was not a trivial amount of labor, and I honestly can’t imagine doing it for all of my courses, every semester.
  • Is it worth it for my audience? And by audience, I mean anyone who wants to borrow from or fork my syllabus. Just as it’s extra work for me to duplicate my course material on GitHub, it’s extra work for most professors and instructors to make use of the same material there. Even with clients for Mac and Windows, working with GitHub requires a certain level of knowledge and commitment that most faculty simply don’t have time for. Wouldn’t it be easier to visit my existing course sites, copy what’s there, paste the contents into your blog or word processor, and then make any changes you want?
  • What are the best practices for treating a syllabus like software? Let’s say the answers to the first two questions are affirmative. Then what are the best practices for sharing a text-centric document with important institutional functions, which, furthermore, is defined by all sorts of expectations about the genre? (Yes, syllabuses comprise a genre of writing.) For example, because software is usually made up of smaller pieces of software, I broke my syllabus into what we could think of as “sub-routines”—smaller modules for each section of my syllabus. I’m not convinced this is the best way to think of a syllabus though, as a set of discrete but interrelated documents. Or at least, it’s not the only way to think of a syllabus. But it’s the one that GitHub encourages.

Has anybody else sharedor forked someone else’s—syllabus on GitHub? Can you convince me that it’s worth it? Can you convince our readers?

Fork photograph courtesy of Flickr user Kevin Dooley / Creative Commons Licensed

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