What a Million Syllabuses Can Teach Us

College course syllabuses are curious documents. They represent the best efforts by faculty and instructors to distill human knowledge on a given subject into 14-week chunks. They structure the main activity of colleges and universities. And then, for the most part, they disappear….

Until now. Over the past two years, we and our partners at the Open Syllabus Project (based at the American Assembly at Columbia) have collected more than a million syllabuses from university websites. We have also begun to extract some of their key components — their metadata — starting with their dates, their schools, their fields of study and the texts that they assign.

This past week, we made available online a beta version of our Syllabus Explorer, which allows this database to be searched. Our hope and expectation is that this tool will enable people to learn new things about teaching, publishing and intellectual history.

At present, the Syllabus Explorer is mostly a tool for counting how often texts are assigned over the past decade. There is something for everyone here. The traditional Western canon dominates the top 100, with Plato’s “Republic” at No. 2, “The Communist Manifesto” at No. 3, and “Frankenstein” at No. 5, followed by Aristotle’s “Ethics,” Hobbes’s “Leviathan,” Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” “Oedipus” and “Hamlet.”….

Top articles? Garrett Hardin’s “The Tragedy of the Commons” and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History.” And so on. Altogether, the Syllabus Explorer tracks about 933,000 works. Nearly half of these are assigned only once.

Such data has many uses. For academics, for example, it offers a window onto something they generally know very little about: how widely their work is read.

It also allows us to introduce a new publication metric based on the frequency with which works are taught, which we call the “teaching score.” The score is derived from the ranking order of the text, not the raw number of citations, such that a book or article that is used in four or five classes gets a score of 1, while “The Republic,” which is assigned 3,500 times, gets a score of 100….

Because of a complex mix of privacy and copyright issues concerning syllabuses, the Open Syllabus Project publishes only metadata, not the underlying documents or any personally identifying material (even though these documents can be viewed on university websites). But we think that it is important for schools to move toward a more open approach to curriculums. As universities face growing pressure to justify their teaching and research missions, we doubt that curricular obscurity is helpful.

We think that the Syllabus Explorer demonstrates how more open strategies can support teaching, diversify evaluation practices and offer new perspectives on publishing, scholarship and intellectual traditions. But as with any newly published work, that judgment now passes out of our hands and into yours…(More)”