Sunday, January 24, 2016

Exploring Syllabi (Syllabuses?)

Snow has pushed back the first day of classes at my college, but my course syllabi are completed and posted for my students. And folks at the Open Syllabus Project have published its first results from reviewing one million syllabi:
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.”
“The Communist Manifesto” ranks as high as it does (for those wondering) because, like “The Republic,” it is frequently taught in multiple fields — notably in history, sociology and political science. Writing guides are also well represented, with “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White at No. 1, as are major textbooks, led by Neil Campbell’s “Biology” at No. 4.
What about fiction from the past 50 years? Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” ranks first, at No. 43, followed by William Gibson’s “Neuromancer,” Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Ms. Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye,” Sandra Cisneros’s “The House on Mango Street,” Anne Moody’s “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” Leslie Marmon Silko’s “Ceremony” and Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.”
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.
Let's see: I always teach Hardin's "Tragedy" in my environmental philosophy courses, Aristotle's "Ethics" in Ethics, and Plato's "Republic" when I teach Intro Philosophy. I assign a snippet of Hobbe's Leviathan in Early Modern. For fiction, I have assigned Gibson's "Neuromancer" once in a first year seminar (but wouldn't again, because it just isn't that good). Other fiction I assign in philosophy courses, not mentioned above, includes Dostoyevsky's "Crime and Punishment" in Ethics, LeGuin's "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" in Ethics (should be on a list of essential reading), Atwood's "Handmaid's Tale" and "Lady Oracle" in Philosophy and Feminism, Piercy's "Woman on the Edge of Time" in Feminism, Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilych" in Biomedical Ethics, Bruce Duffy's biographical novel, "World as I Found It" in a Wittgenstein seminar (quite good), LeGuin's "Lathe of Heaven" in Intro and once in Early Modern. I was tempted to use Kim Stanley Robinson's "Green Mars" in Environmental Philosophy but chickened out because I thought the students would find it too long.
The Syllabus Explorer tool is available here.

n.b.: New York Times copy editors are using 'syllabuses' for the plural; I use 'syllabi' because it is still correct, but probably won't be in a few years.

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