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Reasons to Open Source Your Syllabus


The Open Source Renaissance flickr photo by opensourceway shared under a Creative Commons (BY-SA) license

This semester I’m teaching a new graduate course prep. I always enjoy putting together a new syllabus, but graduate courses are particularly exciting: I always have more things I want to teach than can possibly fit into a semester. During my summer planning, I read and reread articles and gather possible materials, and consult the best reference of all: everybody else’s syllabus.

When I first started teaching, I hadn’t saved even a single syllabus from a class I’d taken — not brilliant, but also, I’d never exactly intended to take this path until it happened. I invented my first classes primarily through a combination of recollecting my favorite undergraduate courses and searching the web for ideas (which at the time was not particularly easy). Many years later, I still rely on reviewing several examples before I finalize a course to benchmark my readings and assignments and get a sense of common expectations and readings. The idea of sharing one’s syllabus has been a subject of debate before here at ProfHacker, and not everyone is thrilled with the idea of someone taking their carefully wrought syllabus and putting their own name on it. I personally don’t see syllabus-copying as a problem, or even a likely approach for most of us searching the web for course inspiration. Konrad has suggested strategies for citing syllabi, particularly when borrowing an assignment or methodology from another professor.

Depending on your institution’s academic calendar, you might currently be finalizing  syllabus or starting the first weeks of class, or even well-and-truly into it. Once you’ve got that syllabus in hand, there are lots of ways to share it with others, particularly if you’ve benefited from the open approach taken by many professors who’ve already put their work online:

  • Open Syllabus Project. The Open Syllabus Project is one of the more impressive cross-disciplinary archives of course materials around, and it has a fairly impressive API for exploring and mapping trends. It’s a particularly useful place to start when working on a new class prep, as it makes it easy to get a sense of where one’s own course fits within practices across institutions. Contributing a syllabus to the project expands the dataset.
  • Humanities Commons. For scholars working in humanities or humanities-adjacent disciplines, the syllabus collection of the open-access CORE repository is already a great resource. Unsurprisingly, there’s a great collection of digital humanities courses represented within the archive, and a lot of English courses thanks to the origin of the project within the MLA. Creating an account is quick, and the network has the potential to compete with commercial spaces like the infamous Academia.edu.
  • Github. Lincoln wrote a guide to forking a syllabus on Github back in 2012: most of it still applies today, though unfortunately Github is still not a great place for the Word documents and similar file types — it works best with text or html.
  • Your Own Institutional Repository. Many institutions have a repository for preprints of articles and other publications, but don’t overlook it as a place for course materials. Depending on your institution, there might be a faculty center repository for easily sharing teaching materials, but the reach of this type of repository varies.

Do you open source your syllabus? Where do you go to find materials for inspiration when you’re planning a new course? Share your strategies in the comments!

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