Open Syllabus Project gives empirical insight into curriculum debates

April 18, 2016, 1:04 a.m.

For the past three years, researchers based out of the American Assembly at Columbia University have worked to collect information from more than 1 million college syllabi as part of the Open Syllabus Project (OSP). Thanks to a Stanford scholar, anyone can now explore that information.

David McClure, a software engineer who has worked with Stanford’s Center for Interdisciplinary Digital Research and now works as digital humanities lead developer for the Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), is the head developer for the OSP’s “Open Syllabus Explorer,” an application that lets any web user study the data from the OSP’s roughly 1.1 million syllabi. Launched in January, the Explorer provides insight into what is being taught at the college level: On the web application, one can see various lists of most-taught texts, as well as citation graphs portraying a complex web of oft-cited texts and the disciplines they are taught in.

As debates continue to smolder — and ignite, in the case of the Who’s Teaching Us campaign and the now-failed initiative to reinstate a Western Civilization requirement Stanford — regarding the prominence of the “Western canon” in American universities’ curriculum, the Open Syllabus Explorer provides a quantitative backing to previously more speculative discussion.

Prevalence of “the canon”

“There have been 30 years of culture wars based on academia getting rid of the traditional Western canon,” says Joe Karaganis, project director of the OSP and vice president of The American Assembly. “We’ve shown pretty definitively that that’s not true. From a top-down perspective, we can see that the canon is still being taught.”

Even a brief scan of the Explorer seems to confirm Karaganis’s point: The top three texts taught, in order, are “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk, “The Republic” by Plato and “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx. The top 20 texts include such names as Hobbes, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Homer and Mill.

Edward Said and Chinua Achebe are the only non-Western authors in the top 50 most-taught books. Said, a Palestinian literary theorist, wrote “Orientalism,” a book that critiques inaccurate Western depictions of so-called “Orientals” and places 12th on the Explorer’s overall list. Nigerian author Achebe’s widely esteemed novel “Things Fall Apart” places 24th.

However, Said and Achebe are less of an anomaly when one limits the rankings to more recent texts.

In a Jan. 22 op-ed in The New York Times, Karaganis and McClure noted that, regarding fiction taught in the last 50 years, Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” ranks first (on the overall list, it is 43rd). The more contemporary list’s top eight includes three black authors (Morrison again, Anne Moody and Alice Walker), a Chicana novelist (Sandra Cisneros) and a Laguna Pueblo writer (Leslie Marmon Silko).

“In last 30 years, some winners [in rankings] are texts that represent multicultural writers,” Karaganis told The Daily. “Most — I think I can use the word most — writers that wrote in the last 30 years that are taught have been women and minorities.”

Still, McClure said that he was surprised at how clearly the Explorer’s data supports the continued existence of a canon within college curriculum.

“We were not sure if it would pan out to be as definite as it was, but it really does look pretty firm and delineated,” he said.

Stanford syllabi

How well does the overall data on curriculum represent what is being taught at Stanford? Fortuitously, the Open Syllabus Explorer allows one to explore syllabi by “institution.”

In late January of this year, Thu-Huong Ha published an online article in Quartz that used data from the Open Syllabus Explorer to compare the top 10 books taught at schools like Harvard, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, Yale, MIT and Stanford.

Compared to the other universities, Stanford’s top 10 books seemed to represent less humanities-focused texts.

According to the Explorer, “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes was the university’s most-taught book, followed by “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn, “Foundations of Statistical Natural Language Processing” by Christopher Manning and “Code and other Laws of Cyberspace” by Lawrence Lessig.

“Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe is the most taught work of fiction, closely followed by “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley, which also ranks as the OSP’s overall most-taught work of fiction.

Of the top 20 authors assigned at Stanford, four were women, and none were people of color.

While the Open Syllabus Explorer has been available since January, campus activist movements have not incorporated this data into their manifestos or demands.

Future expansions

The Open Syllabus Explorer is still in its beta phase, and researchers look forward to obtaining a broader sample of the syllabi available.

The OSP’s website notes that the project’s current collection includes metadata: For privacy and fair use concerns, the project publishes no individual syllabi, instead aggregating information from syllabi from the past 15 years. But the researchers also predict in their website’s FAQ that “the total number of US, UK, Canadian and Australian syllabi for the past 15 years is in the range of 80 to 100 million.”

The OSP collected the majority of its data from web applications scraping information from syllabi available online. Thus, the data represents what McClure calls a “convenience sample.”

As one of its next major steps, the OSP hopes to work with multiple universities to obtain access to their institutional archives of syllabi. Karaganis has been in talks with “seven or eight major universities” in the past year, and the team is excited for the project’s possibilities.

But McClure also expressed his enthusiasm about what the OSP already offers.

“I think it provides an actual, empirical set of evidence about what is being taught,” McClure said. “There has been a huge amount of conversation for the last 20 or 30 years about what should be taught in literature classes, and I think OSP’s goal is to provide as comprehensive as possible [a] snapshot of what is actually happening on the ground in the academy, and hopefully, that can guide policy conversations and broader curriculum design projects.”


Contact Jack Herrera at herreraj ‘at’

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