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This historic map of 6 million syllabi reveals how college is changing

Researchers at Columbia University spent the past three years collecting course syllabi. Here’s what the unprecedented project discovered about the evolution of education.

This historic map of 6 million syllabi reveals how college is changing
[Photos: UpperCut Images/Getty Images, Picsfive/iStock]

For decades, the syllabus has been the roadmap to college classes, listing homework, assignments, and most crucially, texts for students to read and reference. But while a syllabus might be able to teach students what they’re in for during the semester, academics have lacked a tool to analyze large masses of syllabi to better understand what teachers are teaching in different disciplines. That means there isn’t as much empirical data about the content being taught at universities.

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The Open Syllabus Project aims to fix this problem. Researchers at the the American Assembly, a nonprofit housed within Columbia University, have collected an archive of more than six million syllabi from college courses all over the world that could help teachers to create new syllabi and researchers to garner a cross-cultural understanding of higher education.

The project first launched three years ago, but this new update has six times as many syllabi and search tools and visualizations designed to map out how academia works right now. Here’s a few of the things the researchers have learned so far.

[Image: courtesy David McClure]

The most-taught economics are conservative–not Marxist

The Communist Manifesto is one of the most-taught books in the entire syllabus data set, a fact that set off a right-wing viral news cycle when the Open Syllabus Project first launched. But despite fears that universities are teaching students socialist economics, the book isn’t usually taught in economics classes at all, but mostly history, political science, sociology, and English literature, as the new version of the OSP shows.

In contrast, as project director and vice president of a public policy institute at Columbia University Joe Karaganis points out, the most-taught economics books were written by Greg Mankiw, who was an advisor to both Bush and Romney. His textbooks hold four out of the top six spots on economics syllabi.

[Image: courtesy David McClure]

The literature canon has diversified remarkably

Karaganis says he was a graduate student during the heat of the “canon wars” in the eighties and nineties when people were heatedly debating which books deserved to be part of the “canon” that every literature student should read. “The idea that the valuable lit to study should include work that was representative of a diverse array of perspectives was winning but still contested,” he says.

The data shows that this idea won out, but instead of creating a new, diverse canon, the idea of a canon has splintered altogether. Books by Toni Morrison, Chinua Achebe, Sandra Cisneros, and Alice Walker, which Karaganis cites as part of the wave of diversification of the canon, haven’t been added to a new canon. Instead, the numbers of syllabi that assign these books have already peaked, and are now on the decline.

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Karaganis thinks this is in favor of other books with diverse viewpoints; instead of professors deciding on which viewpoints should always be included, they’re constantly choosing new books for their students to read. “It seems likely that the idea of a canon itself was weakened,” he says. “There’s very little sign of dominant new literature titles from the past 10 to 15 years.”

[Image: courtesy David McClure]

The Open Syllabus Project gives new fields a coherent structure

Universities are built around different fields, some of which are newer than others. But younger fields that are more interdisciplinary and less traditional don’t have a single, universally recognized definition—the same discipline might not even have the same name at different institutions. Karaganis thinks that the Open Syllabus Project, which includes a map of all the academic disciplines visualized by MIT Media Lab graduate student David McClure, can help these fields define themselves by what texts educators are teaching. McClure’s map includes about 150,000 of the most frequently assigned books in any program; these books are arranged closer together based on the similarity of the syllabi they appear on.

“It gets past the arbitrariness of the ways in which subjects are organized according to the institutional histories in which they’re embedded,” Karaganis says. He points to environmental science, which is also sometimes called ecology, or even forestry. When looking at McClure’s map of books that are taught in classes having to do with the environment, a single coherent field begins to emerge, regardless of what universities have decided to call it.

That provides one potential application for the Open Syllabus Project: More than a third of students transfer at some point during college, and they’ll be looking for ways to transfer course credit. The syllabi of their courses could be cross-referenced using the website to see how their classes’ syllabi fit into each field more generally in terms of the books that they’ve read. Perusing the map also shows just how much overlap some fields have in terms of what books are assigned—like economics, politics, and history. Others, like music and theology, have almost no books in common with any other discipline.

[Image: courtesy David McClure]

Subjects are taught differently in different countries

Of course a history class in the United States is different from one in Spain. But Karaganis has yet to unpack exactly what the differences between disciplines in different countries are, since he’s hoping that other academics who are specialists in their fields will use the Open Syllabus Project data to do exactly that. “Nobody has ever been able to look at curricula internationally before,” Karaganis says. “People are going to find some really interesting things in contexts where there’s large non-U.S. collections.”

While most of the project’s data comes from the U.S., it also has large datasets for Canada, Australia, and the U.K. Much of Europe also has syllabi represented. However, Karaganis made the deliberate decision not to include syllabi from countries where teaching a certain book could spell trouble for a teacher or a university. He cited parts of Latin America, Russia, and China as places where teachers could be punished if they taught certain texts. Even in Europe and North America, the Open Syllabus Project doesn’t attach any specific teachers’ names to the data, just the universities where they’re teaching, as a way of protecting their identities.

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The dataset could help teachers in another way, though. Karaganis says that most academic institutions judge their professors based on a statistic that’s meant to represent how often they’re publishing journal articles, the prestige of the journals they’re publishing in, and how often other academics cite their journal articles. That means that professors who write texts that are often taught but not cited are at a disadvantage—for instance, if a professor spends their time researching and writing textbooks instead of journal articles, they are penalized in this current system. To try and fix this, the Open Syllabus Project gives every text author a score out of 100 to indicate how frequently their text is taught, compared to the rest of the dataset. It’s not a perfect system, Karaganis admits, but at least it provides another way for teaching-focused professors to be evaluated.

Ultimately, the Open Syllabus Project is a user-friendly tool that could help academics understand their own fields better.

“We’ve opened up a window onto the classroom in a way that didn’t exist before,” Karaganis says.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable

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