Forking Your Syllabus

A forking path

Here at ProfHacker, we’re all about encouraging you to collaborate and share (200+ posts and counting!). Perhaps one of the best places to practice sharing is when you are working on a designing a new class and syllabus. No matter how many classes you’ve taught or how many ProfHacker posts on syllabi you’ve read it can be a bit daunting to start from scratch. Which is a great reason not to start from square one.

In a post for graduate students who are teaching for the first time, I suggested that first-time teachers should learn to embrace theft: recognizing that good teaching often comes from adapting or stealing outright someone’s great assignment, classroom activity, syllabus, or even lecture notes. This advice of course pertains to more than just first-time teachers. When you’re beginning to plan something new, you can always benefit from seeing what others before you have done.

Of course, your use of someone else’s syllabus to design your own need not be outright theft: you could provide acknowledgments on your syllabi. Friend of ProfHacker, Kathy Harris recently reflected on why acknowledgments are important. Doing so helps establish provenance for ideas (always important in scholarship), generates goodwill among fellow scholars, and might even help make your case for the influence of your teaching innovations when it comes time for an annual or tenure review. (Kathy’s post struck a nerve as I had felt the need to give such credit when I designed a new course last fall.)

In conversations about Kathy’s post on Twitter, Trevor Owens suggested that syllabi could learn a trick or two from GitHub. GitHub is a repository for open source code that supports version control (don’t miss our gentle introduction to version control). What this means in plain terms is that developers can share code using GitHub and then other developers can add on to that code, with the repository tracking all the changes. If a developer wants to take a piece of code down a different line of development, he or she “forks” the code. The fork shows the provenance of the code while still allowing you to adapt it to your own needs. Finding a platform to “fork your syllabus” would not only allow you to give acknowledgments to those whose work you drew on, but it would invite others to make use of your syllabus for their own development, similar perhaps to assigning it a Creative Commons license.

As luck would have it, a few days later Audrey Watters, of the amazing Hack Education, covered ClassConnect: a platform for sharing your teaching documents and for others to edit them. I haven’t had the chance to play with ClassConnect much yet, so I’ll hold off on giving a full review. While having a particular platform for sharing syllabi will of course be useful, I believe the practice of forking represents a much more exciting idea. Like Ethan, then, I want “forking a class” to become part of our vernacular.

What about you? How would you feel about giving public credit for those from whom you develop ideas? Would you welcome others forking with your syllabi? Let us know in the comments!

Lead photo: Splitsing van fietspaden / E. Dronkert / CC BY 2.0

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