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New Syllabus Archive Opens the ‘Curricular Black Box’

Course syllabi are a potentially valuable source of information for teaching and scholarship. Their contents could shed light on the evolution of fields (How has Foucault’s popularity changed over time?) or help professors develop new courses (What are best practices for teaching digital humanities?). But gathering and sharing syllabi can be a messy business. Privacy concerns, legal uncertainty, fragmented and inconsistent sharing practices—all present challenges.

A group of scholars is taking a fresh crack at the problem. Called the Open Syllabus Project, their effort aims to build a large-scale online database of syllabi “as a platform for the development of new research, teaching, and administrative tools.” The scholars also want to start a broader conversation about sharing syllabi before universities wake up to find policies imposed on them from above.

“The idea is to be proactive and to actually think about how we’re going to share—and share our classroom materials in a smart way,” says Dennis Tenen, one of the project’s leaders and an assistant professor of digital humanities and new-media studies at Columbia University.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Related work has been attempted by various groups in recent decades, including H-Net and MIT OpenCourseWare. In 2011, Daniel J. Cohen, then director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, released a database with links to more than a million syllabi that he had harvested from the web with a tool called “Syllabus Finder.”

To build their new syllabus database, Mr. Tenen and his colleagues followed Mr. Cohen’s links and downloaded the actual syllabus documents. (Mr. Cohen, now executive director of the Digital Public Library of America, is on the advisory board of the Open Syllabus Project.) They also pulled syllabi from other online repositories. In all, the group has amassed roughly 800,000 syllabi. The project has financing from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and a cross-institutional list of partners, including the Digital Innovation Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and metaLAB at Harvard.

So what might scholars learn from studying syllabi?

Earlier work by Mr. Cohen gives a sense of the potential. In a 2005 article in The Journal of American History, he analyzed nearly 800 syllabi to study the place of textbooks in American-history survey courses. Discussing such courses in the same journal, a group of professors had earlier stressed the importance of additional readings and suggested that textbooks played a secondary role in their classes. Mr. Cohen’s data showed that those remarks “may not be representative of how the survey is taught” at most American colleges, which remained heavily dependent on textbooks and conventional teaching methods.

In interviews, Mr. Tenen and another Open Syllabus Project leader—Alex Gil, digital-scholarship coordinator for humanities and history at Columbia—suggested other potential avenues of research. Which texts are influential? In the history of institutions, when did certain classes stop being offered and others arrive on the scene? Is Robert Frost taught in the same way now that he was a decade ago? Departments claim to be interdisciplinary—how true are those claims? Are there gender differences in what’s being taught? Or geographical ones? What about the plagiarism policies contained in syllabi—do they tell us anything about how ethical standards may vary in different states?

The scholars also hope their project can inject fresh metrics “into the conversation about scholarly communication, from tracking the use of open-access publications to measuring how frequently, and in what contexts, faculty members’ works are taught,” according to the project’s website.

“To date, syllabi are almost completely unexploited resources,” the website says. “They are treated as ephemera of the teaching enterprise rather than as its DNA.”

Because of legal questions surrounding the ownership of syllabi, the Open Syllabus Project does not plan to make the individual syllabi in its corpus publicly available at this point. Instead, the plan is to add tools to the project’s website that will allow users to search and analyze data extracted from that archive. Those data might include the name of the university offering a particular class, for example, as well as the year the class was taught, the readings assigned, and the plagiarism policy enforced. The Open Syllabus Project plans to host a tool-building hackathon as part of a conference at Columbia in June.

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