Monday, January 25, 2016

Syllabus Explorer: A Searchable Syllabus Database

The NYTimes highlighted a nifty new tool for searching over a million college syllabuses called Syllabus Explorer.

Over the past two years, the Open Syllabus Project (based at the American Assembly at Columbia) have collected more than a million syllabuses from university websites. [They] 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.

Open Syllabus Projects hopes that their 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.”

You might find yourself asking why this information is important. According to Open Syllabus Projects, [s]uch 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.

There is a caveat:
The Syllabus Explorer results reflect the collection of syllabuses that [Open Syllabus Project] have gathered so far, which is large enough to give interesting results but far from complete. It is a work in progress on many levels, and one that depends on a culture of open bibliographic data-sharing in the academy.

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.

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