Putting Syllabi Online

I kept meaning to get around to this last week, but I was snowed under with two other things that needed to get done before the academic year starts up again. Adam Kotsko asks an eminently sensible question: why don’t faculty routinely put draft syllabi online, looking for comments as they shape the syllabus. (He distinguishes this from putting drafts of scholarly work online, and I completely agree with him on this point, as I don’t think that’s usually a good idea.)

I’ve written some about this question before. Since I often put up both drafts of syllabi and completed syllabi for comments, I obviously think it’s a good practice. It’s been nothing but beneficial for me: I’ve gotten great suggestions, interesting critiques, a good feeling for how the syllabus plays with different intellectual communities. So why wouldn’t everyone do this? In fact, why shouldn’t everyone more or less be officially pushed to do it by colleagues or administrations. It’s not just a good thing for the person posting the syllabus, but for students who want an early view of what a course might entail and for larger publics who would like to get a sense of how much work and thought goes into an average course design. Since one of the handicaps academics have in the public sphere at the moment is that there are a number of people who think the work of college teaching consists of walking into a room, letting knowledge spill out of your head, and leaving, it might help if we gave a demonstration of what’s actually involved.

I thought maybe I’d try to collect all of the reasons I can think of that faculty don’t do this, some of which I’ve talked about before in this space.

1) Unfamiliarity with or serious objection to the technologies or media involved in posting syllabi online.

Not much you can do with this reason if this is the issue. If someone doesn’t want to know how to do it, or believes that they have a principled objection to everything online, that’s it. That kind of blanket rejection strikes me as bordering on professional irresponsibility for an academic at this point, but ok.

2) Anxiety about specific kinds of public or political hostility directed narrowly at a particular field or subject preventing useful feedback or requiring too much attention from the poster.

There are a few cases where I’m inclined to grant the legitimacy of this position. If you’re a historian who teaches about the Israel-Palestine conflict, you may honestly just want to opt out of any situation where you summon down the buzz of angry partisans on both sides into a comment thread, and that could happen if you are working on a syllabus that aims for the blandest, most even-handed presentation of that subject. But most faculty vastly overestimate the extent to which their specific choices on a syllabus are likely to provoke specific negative reactions that are in some sense knowledgeable if angry or unreasonable. There are plenty of totally ignorant kinds of vaguely political responses to academic courses, on the other hand, but you’re exposed to loony Horowitzian hacks who just skim course titles looking for targets whether or not you post your syllabi online. In my case, in fact, having a syllabus online helped underscore the stupidity of a lot of that skimming.

3) Anxiety from junior faculty about enabling the hostile scrutiny of senior faculty by giving them detailed looks at a process of course design, and especially anxiety about exposing an early draft for fear that it will make the designer look ignorant of key texts.

Junior faculty have every reason to worry that information can be twisted or misused by a hostile senior colleague. But look at it this way: when you’re looking for an academic position, you’re going to be sharing some draft syllabi (you should, at least) and you’re going to have to talk some about the way you look at your courses. Once you have a post, senior colleagues are going to be able to get information about what you’re teaching if they want to get it. Privacy can’t protect you from someone who is determined to make your choices in teaching into an issue. Transparency can’t hurt you, but it might help you. One of the things that a bad senior colleague who knows a little about your field can try to do when your dossier is being examined is to misrepresent the canonical content of your field to others. An active commentariat who responds positively to your choices in online posting is a shield against that misrepresentation. Give your friends and supporters as many tools as you can to help if you think there’s any problems.

4) One of the two key reasons why most faculty don’t post and don’t want to post. A lot of faculty suffer from some degree of the “imposter syndrome”, maybe to an increasing degree as time goes on. They feel they don’t really know their fields or subjects as well as they ought to, or imagine that everyone else in the field knows more. They worry that people in more high-powered institutions, or people with the top graduate students, know the true or proper canons. So many faculty don’t want to post syllabi because they’re afraid it will expose some lack or absence in their knowledge.

I get this, I really do. I feel it myself some days, and all the more with each passing year. I’ve been sprucing up my upper-level seminar in African history and feeling inadequate in the face of the piles and piles of published work that has appeared in just the past four years. I keep turning up a new book or article that I feel I should have read. Putting a syllabus up seems like painting a bull’s eye on yourself. But some things to consider: 1) almost everyone else you know in your field feels that way, too, and the few who don’t, who are certain that they know everything in the field, are generally jerks; 2) you know a lot more than you think you know; 3) putting up syllabi is the solution to the problem, not a further aggravation of it; and 4) someone who really does think you’re ridiculous for missing something isn’t going to say it to you in comments and already thinks that about you anyway whether or not they see your syllabus (see: “are generally jerks”).

5) The other key reason. Many specialized fields are a closed shop: they maintain a sense of expertise through limiting their circulation and exposure to other fields of specialized knowledge, other disciplines and wider publics. Posting syllabi online (or anywhere) interrupts the circuits through which these kinds of fields maintain their sense of authority.

This dovetails into some wider domains, such as the indifference of many practicing scholars to open-access publishing or the hauteur of some academics when they find themselves accidentally caught up in a public debate or controversy. I don’t think a lot of folks are overt in their belief that their syllabi should derive from a closed conversation, but it’s not hard to find a lot of cases where this is more or less driving the reluctance to expose the content of teaching to colleagues, let alone a wider public. You don’t have to push very far to find plenty of professors who think that there is almost no one qualified to judge the adequacy of their choices of material in a course, and that there is no public defense of those choices which could be comprehensible outside of a narrowly specialized discourse. I think this is really where the battleground forms, not just about syllabi but about the basic architecture of knowledge in the 21st Century. I think if we can’t make a strong case for the value of expertise in relation to the opening up of knowledge through online media, we’re screwed. So putting your syllabi up online is a good way to learn how to make that case, to demonstrate that there is some kind of authority that goes beyond Wikipedia and Google. Refusing to do so is a good way to accelerate the obsolescence of scholarship.

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14 Responses to Putting Syllabi Online

  1. Tim, I think there’s a corollary to #5 that might be even more powerful: the sense of property and ownership that pervades the academy (and beyond). For many people, the products of labor, be them physical or intellectual, are regarded as property whose value is tied to their scarcity. When I pick rhubarb from my garden and make them into preserves, those jars have value that I could either save for myself, sell, or gift – I wouldn’t put them out at the end of my driveway with a “free” sign, as that would devalue the labor and costs of raw materials I put into making them.

    I think too many people treat the non-rivalrous products of our labor (ideas, writing, syllabi) the same way we treat rivalrous objects like rhubarb preserves – somehow if we gave them away for free, they would lose their value. But my own experience is that sharing ideas makes them more valuable, not less – which is why I do share my syllabi and writings (both drafts & final versions). It’s not like my classes lose any pedagogical impact because they syllabi are public – and in fact, the quality of ideas can only be strengthened by inviting feedback from a wide range of readers.

    What I’m not sure about is what’s the best rebuttal to persuade people that online knowledge distribution is not the same as jars of jam – it’s hard to understand until you experience it yourself…

  2. Brian Ulrich says:

    I’m intrigued by the implication that if an important book or article isn’t on the syllabus, it’s because you don’t know it rather than having simply decided it’s not the best fit for your course or is unavailable at your institution.

  3. jliedl says:

    At my university, they raise technical barriers. Only staff or faculty who’ve taken a course on the CMS system and have been nominated by their department for access can even create or update pages on the site. You also have to update either on-campus or go through the additional headaches of obtaining a VPN connection in order to do this off-campus.

    Unsurprisingly, our university’s web presence has really declined. A few departments, mine included, are moving off the official website in hopes of creating a more dynamic and easily updated website. In the meantime, unless they use their course WebCT welcome page and/or personal blog to do so, the word’s simply not getting out.

    I’m still struggling with my new senior seminar syllabus on Gender in Early Modern Europe. When it’s done, though, thanks to this post, I’ll upload a copy of the syllabus to my blog.

  4. Bill McNeill says:

    Another more mundane reason: the professor puts together the syllabus at the last minute.

  5. withywindle says:

    You may recollect a long-ago debate we had about proper professional ethics for the teaching profession, where I did acknowledge that professors included less monitoring of colleagues than did, say, doctors. Not posting syllabi is part and parcel of not monitoring how colleagues teach, and not wanting to be monitored. You put it as anxiety; I would say that it is part of the ethic of academia that you have, in other circumstances, embraced.

  6. Timothy Burke says:

    Part of that is a disagreement about how prevalent some problems are, and part is about the difference between persuasion and control as the way to get best practices. Also you are considerably more sympathetic to outside critics whose motives I question and whose knowledge is poor. (Resulting in howlers like that Weekly Standard piece on courses.)

  7. I have found #1, technological anxiety, surprisingly widespread among my own colleagues, one of whom recently said to me, “Well, it’s easy for you, with all your BLOGGING and so on, but the rest of us need a lot more technical support.” She did not believe me that using Blogger does not require a very extensive skills set. We haven’t yet been able to get all of our dept members to set up individual websites, which is particularly troublesome for graduate recruiting. I haven’t posted draft syllabi, exactly, but I have solicited advice a few times about what texts to teach for different purposes, and I have always found it a very useful and enlightening exercise–and I would really like to see what other people do.

    Imposter syndrome is another problem, I’m sure, and I think this is related to the comment about not wanting to be monitored: at my own institution, we have no routine way of looking in on one another’s classes, even at tenure time, though I think that would be hugely beneficial both for learning how other people manage their material and their students, and for transparency. Who among us doesn’t continue to worry about being caught out in a stupidity? I started blogging about my teaching a couple of years ago, partly because I agree that being open about what actually happens in our classrooms might actually help dispel some of the myths that have depressing currency in the culture at large. I found one of my own biggest mental hurdles (even after more than a decade of experience) was overcoming the anxiety that my classroom work would somehow not withstand public scrutiny, that I was actually doing it wrong, or should be doing it differently. (Blogging in general is certainly therapeutic for this–though I have colleagues, too, who read blogs but refuse to comment because they refuse to commit themselves in public… so more of the same.)

  8. Bill McNeill says:

    A follow-on to jliedl Rohan and Maitzen’s posts: the skill-set barriers to entry have fallen dramatically since maybe the beginning of 2008. I was struck by this last winter when I was setting up collaborative blogging and information-sharing for my various research projects. A couple years ago I would have used the University of Washington’s in-house web authoring system, an ad-hoc departmental wiki, or just done the whole thing by hand. All of these solutions were clunky and time-consuming. But now Google Sites and its ilk provide good UI and seemless back-end IT support. There’s a qualitative difference in ease-of-use, and though at the moment it’s most apparent to technically-savvy people like myself, I could see this awareness spreading into the general population just as blogging did a few years ago.

    Of course, this makes no difference to Tim’s objection #1, but for academics who want to use the web for a broad variety of tasks but still find it technically daunting, the landscape might be becoming a lot more welcoming.

  9. ModernSophist says:

    (Not a teacher, so pardon the naivety, but was curious enough to comment.) I wonder if some teachers would be hesitent to open their syllibi up to students, specifically, because of some anxiety they might have about the ignorance of their comments. Specifically, I am imagining a fear of comments coming from those students I’ll describe as “ignorant and opinionated.” Naturally, there is risk of this in any open forum, but maybe some professors simply imagine this to be a real possibility (of course, we can think of the ‘jerks’ you mentioned). Further, there is bound to be a professor out there who would do anything to avoid an open forum where his least favorite, perhaps very vocal, grad-student had an opportunity to demonstrate how many opinions they actually had. I can just imagine such an anxiety when it comes down to just wanting the project to be done.

  10. Bill McNeill says:

    For the record, not all academics are so miserly. In the Linguistics department at the University of Washington we have a healthy practice of sharing class materials between instructors. There’s a common folder of old syllabi, tests, assignments, etc., and the first thing a new instructor for a class does is to go get the syllabus of the person who taught it before.

    There are differences from the situation you describe: the sharing is within the department, the syllabi are not drafts, this is primarily done for intro courses, and the material tends to be less ideological so there’s little risk that David Horowitz will pitch a fit about your presentation of grammatical case in Icelandic. Still, class materials are thought of as communal resources and people are willing to share.

  11. Western Dave says:

    I went sort of half-way. I posted a draft syllabus of my Environmental History course for HS seniors on my facebook as a note. Got some feedback so far. It wasn’t exactly public and some colleagues who are also facebook friends were supportive. But my mom figured it was a bad move because of intellectual property questions, but then she’s a lawyer.

  12. Rana says:

    For me it’s a combination of timing and energy and what I think I would get out of the process.

    I’m supposed to submit my books for next semester NOW. Before I even know if I’m going to teach in the spring. My books and other materials for the fall are now locked in, and in the bookstore. If I put up a draft of my syllabus, how does it help me if people question my reading selections, or if they offer suggestions? I can’t do anything about them at this point, and the odds of my getting to teach the course next year aren’t great. So I don’t have much practical incentive at this point.

    It’s also a matter of priorities. I hate to say it, but as a part-time adjunct, revising and tweaking my syllabus isn’t something that’s high on my list. I want to get it done, and not think about it too much afterward, because the last thing I need is to keep adjusting it and second-guessing it throughout the semester. I have more immediate concerns, like writing my lectures, grading, and handling the inevitable problems that crop up among the students.

    But then, I’m in the process of re-credentialing myself in order to career-shift out of teaching, so perhaps I’m not a good example.

  13. elnjensen says:

    I’m coming late to the discussion here, but it seems to me that there is an additional, major reason not listed in your post: the lack of an appropriate forum or audience for posting a syllabus. By “appropriate” here, I mean one in which a posted syllabus would actually be read and commented on.

    I suppose in a way this is a variant of your reason #1 (unfamiliarity with the technology), but I really think it’s fundamentally different; it would be trivial for me to create a new weblog and post a syllabus there. Similarly, I could post it on my own webpage, or I could post it in Blackboard here on campus. So the technology for *posting* is not an obstacle, but in none of the cases I list above would a posted syllabus actually be read by anyone, because they wouldn’t find it.

    Do other fields have sites for posting syllabi that have a significant number of readers? I don’t know of one in my own field (astronomy). It’s a great idea, but I’m just not familiar with a forum where it would work. Am I missing something obvious?

  14. Timothy Burke says:

    Catching up after returning from a camping trip, but I think that Eric’s point is pretty important. I spoke some time ago to a well-known academic content-management system publisher about a service they were thinking about that would be somewhat like MIT’s Open Courseware but nationwide instead. I haven’t heard anything more about it, but what I suggested to them is that they depart from their current practice and make a system that was open-access and aimed at collaboration and cooperation between faculty at many campuses, that would aggregate syllabi (both draft and completed) in particular fields. Until we have something like that, getting eyeballs on most draft syllabi is going to be at best an accidental consequence of having other content going (like this or other blogs).

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