Online Syllabi

If you’ve been following news of ACTA’s imminent release of a report opportunistically entitled How Many Ward Churchills?, and you’ve looked at the comments thread, you can tell I’m finding the early excerpts irritating. I’m waiting for the full report to be faxed to me (I find it annoying that a report that’s being promoted online isn’t available online). Update at 2:50 pm, May 17th: the report has just been made available online. Good. That ought to be standard operating procedure. It may well be that the full document will be more satisfying in some respect. I’ll read it carefully and reserve further comment until then.

However, a side question came up out of a conversation at Cliopatria regarding the report. KC Johnson complains that many faculty do not post their syllabi online, which complicates the task of anyone wanting to systematically review the content of curricula. This is true enough. I talked about this problem at the recent Free Culture meeting here at Swarthmore. There are some amazing exceptions, most strikingly MIT.

There are probably more syllabi online than Johnson thinks, or maybe even than I think. One problem is that even those that are online are often behind a CMS wall, such as Blackboard. I have a few years of syllabi that are tied up in Blackboard, for example, including a year where I extensively experimented with using the tools it provides. Bad idea on my part, but I don’t feel like undertaking the labor to haul those courses out of the archives, extract the syllabi and post them here. If you don’t have an open-access platform that is aggressively mandated by the institution, as in MIT’s case, you’re going to get a hodgepodge of idiosyncratic locations where online syllabi might be found.

I think the case for putting syllabi online comes close to being a mandatory obligation for scholars. It ought to be especially so for faculty with a strong interest in social justice. MIT’s syllabi have done as much for some developing nations as many hugely expensive development projects. Regardless of your political or social commitments, however, it just seems to me to be a basic part of the professional requirement to disseminate knowledge. Nobody is going to “steal” anything meaningful from you out of your syllabus: your distinctive craftwork as a teacher is what really distinguishes a course, not the bare bones framework.

So why don’t faculty routinely put syllabi online? There are some basic, simple reasons, such as lack of access to a suitable platform or architecture, lack of relevant information literacy, and uneasiness or lack of familiarity with online environments in general

These can be overcome with institutional help.

There are deeper issues rooted in institutional culture, however. Some faculty may be uneasy or nervous about the kind of careless ideological cherrypicking that some critics of academia regularly carry out. Maybe ACTA’s report is a case of that, maybe not (the odds are looking favorable that it is) but there’s other cases that are unambiguously sloppy, such as David Horowitz or the Young America’s Foundation. So for faculty that don’t really care to have a high public profile or engage in debate with tendentious outsiders who do not have any respect for evidence, proportionality, nuance or context, I can well see why the prospect of having a basically innocent course plucked out and offered up as raw meat for partisan axe-grinding might be intimidating.

I don’t think that anxiety is a legitimate reason not to put your courses online. That’s part of the burden of living in a free society, especially if you teach at a publically-supported university.

I think a deeper, and more common, anxiety comes from the extent to which most academics, even the best-informed and most competent, sometimes feel unable to keep up in their own fields, unable to manage the flow of knowledge, feel as if they are imposters. When you get into that mental space, it can feel very scary to have your syllabi out in the open, available for anyone to see. It’s unlikely that anyone from your own field of specialization is going to scrutize your syllabus with a hostile or critical attitude, but I suspect that’s what some faculty are afraid of.

In some cases, maybe they really do have something to fear. A few years back, I had occasion to see a syllabus from a well-known figure in a field that I know pretty well, from a student who was asking for transfer credit. It was on paper at least an embarassing course that met about six times for an hour or so, had one short paper and no other assignment, and largely consisted of reading the works of the person teaching the class, with clear prompts towards adulation of those works. This wasn’t a directed reading: it was a standard course listed in the catalog. I’ve occasionally seen syllabi in various fields that really are embarassingly dusty or poorly built.

Any other working hypotheses out there about why many faculty do not make syllabi available online?

It would be a benefit to the overall profession, to educational institutions, if all syllabi had to be available to outside scrutiny, because I suspect that those faculty who don’t bother updating or thinking about their courses would feel more of a compulsion to do so. Mind you, this isn’t about politicization: I strongly suspect the embarassing cases are evenly distributed across disciplines and political postures. I would certainly like to move towards making the online publication of syllabi a professional and institutional norm, at any rate.

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3 Responses to Online Syllabi

  1. texter says:

    This is a great topic. I need to read the post more carefully – and perhaps the original ACTA site – but based on what I already know, I absolutely agree that syllabi should be made available. My institution uses Segue, and I was kind of shocked to see that some professors who used Segue (still a minority i think) configured the “permissions” so that only those registered for their class had access to things like the syllabus! I thought they would at least let other university faculty see what they were up to in the interest of dissemination of information, inter-disciplinary collaboration and plain ol’ sharing.
    To be somewhat self-critical for a moment, I noticed I was hesitant to ask a faculty member in my graduate program for a copy of her syllabus for a course I could not take. She was happy to oblige, but I noticed myself wondering if I was overstepping some “intellectual property” line with regards to “seeing” the syllabus without registering for the course! I mean, are syllabi even considered intellectual property?
    Anyway, I love seeing how other professors juxtapose texts and organize material; and I love to share my own course ideas and syllabi. Depending on what type of course it is, and how much value one puts on interdisciplinarity, creating syllabi can be labor-intensive but that’s what makes that work so satisfying as well. It is part of the intellectual work we are engaged in as scholars.

  2. I’ve posted every syllabus I’ve ever put together and will continue to do so even as I switch to using Blackboard and soon Angel for intra-class communications. I think there’s a simple answer why more professors don’t do this: the difficulty of creating and maintaining a web site, or at least its perceived difficulty, for many in the professoriate. I used to think this was a generational thing until I realized how few of my generation post their syllabi at my own institution. My union goon side sees it as a kind of unofficial academic work-to-rule practice, but my activist techie side sees it as self-defeating spitefulness.

    So here’s the problem with your suggestion at the end, Tim. Any university that tries to institute it will try either a) forming a team of IT people to work with individual faculty members and literally go office to office, in which case the team will keep growing and faculty will (rightly?) complain about university resources being shifted toward staff and away from faculty OR b) forming a team of IT people or hiring a consultant to create an idiot-proof syllabus-into-web-site-web-site that faculty won’t use (goto a).

    My current institution is pursuing a) minus the team and the going office to office parts, with foreseeable results.

    My graduate institution hired my ex to do b) in the mid-’90s and it was a great way to support a great graduate student but I sincerely doubt the template she created is still being used (I know the one I had to use for my first two online syllabi ever–and my first two course designs ever!–bit the dust within years and was retired a decade later for even archiving purposes, taking my syllabi with it).

    Any other tactics at the institutional level that have a prayer of actually working?

    Even neat online projects like the American Studies Crossroads Project that go the “professional” norming route rather than the “institutional” one aren’t meeting their potential, IMHO.

    Paradoxically, then, I think the best route is a combination of the exhortation and example blogs like yours and Mode for Caleb provide (sticking to historians’ ones I read regularly). But this raises the larger question of how/why professional/institutional norms change…want to take that topic on sometime?

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I think about that a lot–it’s sort of the underlying premise of my “Gordian Knot” posts: where’s the pressure point for change?

    And you’re right that it’s not only not easy to pressure people to change, but that you have to show a bit of caution when you’re basically asking people to take on a new regular bit of work. There are a lot of people looking to hang bells and whistles on a semester’s labor schedule, and faculty rightfully resist most of them because many such requests take little interest in the labor time required. (I received about eight surveys this year of various kinds, for example.)

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