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.