the syllabus as poetry

Thinking about the syllabus as a literary form led me to thinking about using, or playing with, the syllabus form in not-syllabus ways…this is one result.

Course of Study

contact information
What violence, what nerve:
their flashing soles,
their dream-lidded eyes,
their unmarked skins.
Blackboard dust breathing
up, and that swing, barely moving.

course description
A child’s head knocks
with his name, his mother’s,
and a million million songs.
And in each song, another child,
and in each child, the treasured
names, the million songs, each one
a blue-green crystal thing that may,
that may, that surely one day will be.
And then. And then. The days come. Or they
do not. The songs themselves play out. The end.

objectives
Not to loose the moth in your chest.
Not to pin its wings to wax.
Not to show it the blood on your teeth.
Not to forgive the world that will kill it.

required texts
Arms, Laurel. In Case of Fire, You Burn. Cold World Press, 1972.
Hess, J. G. “These Murderous Waves.” in Best Things, Warren/Fields, 1979.
Pryderi, Sophia. Building Without Materials: or, Wishes Can Be Houses. Neverlands Press, 2006.
Wren, Niko. The Fabulist Forgets Herself. Chosen Books, 2007.
Zora, Forma. “On Being Born.” in Living Here and Other Options. Last Exposures, 2013.

assessment
Did you read him the book with the owl? Did you
change the endings that scared him? Did you
choose well your words? Did you let him find you,
did you hold him, call him my boy? Did you
let him see you, did you make him see himself
through the broken lens of your heart? Oh,
you have failed. The blue-green glass
will never show him, never, though you gaze
and long. You thought you could keep him
in your head. In that, you were wrong.

how to read a syllabus

It might be argued that the syllabus is rarely read at all. University teaching and learning centers emphasize the necessity of a well-designed comprehensive syllabus; instructors compose syllabi with exacting care; but few read them for pleasure, and many accept many students’ failure—or refusal—to read them as given. A popular strip at the online comics site www.phdcomics.com depicts a beleaguered professor simply waving a sign inscribed “It’s in the syllabus” at every student appearing at her office door. Cornell University’s Center for Teaching Excellence organizes its online guide to syllabus composition into three primary headings, two discussing best practices and one on “[motivating] students to refer to the syllabus”. These examples reflect a concern that can be read across higher education: students have to read the syllabus, they don’t read the syllabus, why can’t we get them to read the syllabus? Various techniques have been proposed to address the problem: in-class syllabus review, quizzes, signature fields. Such approaches may produce the desired short-term result, but focusing on enforcement from the outset may come at a cost to the classroom dynamic.

The formal and stylistic features of the syllabus are rarely examined separately from the effects the document aims to produce. The bulk of syllabus studies have been conducted in the context of comprehensive pedagogic strategies in academic departments, teaching and learning centers, and schools. It follows, then, that best practices in syllabus production and use should frequently be determined based on expected or observed results. Within this model, the syllabus is designed and evaluated according to the fit between the instructor’s pedagogic aims and the learning outcomes and behaviors the syllabus helps support.

This emphasis on practice is not inappropriate: after all, the syllabus is an instrument. It formalizes the norms and expectations of an educational community, and it can be an important tool and reference for instructors and students alike. However, I hope to suggest a more systematic approach to the syllabus as a cultural artifact and a literary form—in short, as a text. By exploring and articulating the poetics of the syllabus, I hope to promote a less proscriptive, legalistic approach to creating and reading these texts and elaborate on the overlooked value (and possibly even pleasure) of their analysis and reading, both close and distant.

Once a spare list of lecture topics, the syllabus as a form has grown to include a number of standard features: course description, required texts, course policies, goals and objectives, schedule, and more. However, the syllabus is also a narrative, and it can be read as such. It represents a path through a subject; it follows the way one way a body of knowledge—with its own history—might be moved through. It tells a story of academic apprenticeship, a process of collaborative composition through loans, gifts, thefts, and conversations. As individual instantiations of a form, syllabi embody our educational and intellectual conventions and philosophies, illustrate the movement between educational theory and practice, and, in some cases—for example, those in David Foster Wallace’s recently released papers—enact their authors’ classroom personae. Teaching, learning, writing, and research are increasingly intertwined in higher education, with many departments providing training in pedagogy. Many syllabi are meticulously crafted in both content and style; they are included in job applications and tenure review packages; they are archived among the papers of prominent scholars and writers.

Current trends in syllabus design—in particular, the comprehensive and learning-centered models—prioritize communication and clarity, expectation setting, and transparency, especially in assessment practices. However, both also tend to produce syllabi that are more legal than literary. Designed to influence and organize behavior, these documents are perhaps read most carefully when their terms are violated. The Illinois State University Center for Teaching, Learning and Technology provides a particularly explicit example when it describes the syllabus as “A framework… A ‘contract’…A permanent record…A public record…A protection for the instructor.” This approach reflects the norms of the “comprehensive” syllabus, what Barbara Gross Davis calls “an implicit teaching-learning contract, outlining the reciprocal roles and responsibilities of students and the instructor; a diagnostic tool…an unambiguous source of policies and procedures; a learning tool…providing them with the information…they will need to succeed in the course; and a set of promises—what the instructor promises students will learn and the activities students will undertake to fulfill those promises.” (21) Learning-centered pedagogy produces similar results: although its theory emphasizes active and empowered learning, it too treats the syllabus as a contract, dense with detail and strongly concerned with behavior and consequence.

For these reasons and others, it’s not difficult to make a case for reading syllabi from a distance. Analyzing large numbers of digital or digitized syllabi permits us to trace topics, trends, patterns, formal choices, and convergences in educational practice over time. Most college and university departments keep copies of each distributed course syllabus on file; many maintain electronic collections on the departmental or institutional level. The conventions of these documents are consistent enough that Dan Cohen was able to design software that identified more than one million online syllabi based on common language features. (His tool, the Syllabus Finder, was retired in 2009 when changes to Google’s API rendered its algorithms ineffective; Cohen has since made public a database of the links his program identified as syllabi, many of which are unfortunately now broken.) Seeing Syllabi will allow users to explore a corpus of syllabi and run interactive visualizations and other analyses of language use, text adoption, topic patterns, and more.

But how to read the syllabus closely? How to recoup a form so deeply bound with the methods and materials of its production and instrumentality into the provenance of the literary? How to illuminate the vital, creative thought, the histories and stories at its core without sacrificing the necessity of its function? On its face, the course syllabus has perhaps more in common with the types of content Alan Liu describes as “knowledge work” than with traditional literary genres: a high level of structure; “greased” (in James Moor’s terms) mechanical or digital replication and distribution; a strongly proscriptive approach to design and best practices; a focus on the efficient transmission of information; legal language that creates and enforces power and control structures; and operationality within the corporate structure of contemporary higher education. Yet I continue to worry at the problem: how to read the poetics of the syllabus?

a poem for the Faculty Fellows

Today was our cohort’s final meeting of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities Faculty Fellows’ weekly seminar. (Recall that the IAH and the Digital Innovation Lab funded the fellowship that allowed me to spend this semester on Seeing Syllabi.) We were invited to share a gift, keepsake, memento, token of some kind with the group in parting. Folks outdid themselves: a song was performed, works of art presented, chocolates and champagne punch and pizzelles and toasts were handed round. I wrote a poem that brought together the phrases and images that had most haunted me in each Fellow’s work and gave each person a copy tucked in one of my favorite blank notebooks (those Moleskine medium-sized paperbound journals). It was such a satisfying and invigorating closure to the seminar.

Here is the poem:

The Catch
for Alice James and the IAH Faculty Fellows, 2013

Clear. the ice runs to day.
Martha Ballard, 1785

A net of gleanings, heavy with sun: its knots
bound and pull, each node loosing
and straining the next, crossed
and hatched with arrows. Somewhere
an archive wakes, taps out
its memory, spreads its arms and waits.
Little goes uncaught here, each name
a body both held and thrown back,
Kerala, Oklahoma, Portobelo, Kuwait: each word
the root of a tooth, a nail’s bed: suicide,
grandmother, the weight of a life against
its use, not death but how we call death,
how we breathe into its ear: come on, boy,
you know I love you, you know I want you:
it is the neon-spattered cave, the blacksnake
in reverse, the basement an animal eye. What
a grotesque I am! Alice, these are failures
of optometry: the Ponca warrior
on his chemical earth, the telescope
locked on the glass in his hand. One slipknot
binds a revolution: it skips free, gathers
Creek, Chickasaw, the labor of the smoky
South. The devil laughs in Panama; the scribe
marks the moment and releases his story
to the air. On the market ticks,
knotting pelts to oil to the bare whipped soles
of feet, and from the statistical whir, from
the code in the air: story, shape, song,
minute events perpetually taking place,
the Russian for give birth, for common sense,
for child of glass, of bone. Yet, yet. Laughter
there, the stiff dress lifted, the arms
awkwardly raised, the wink of an eye. What is it,
Alice? What do you know, that you laugh
so well? Guess again, she says. Write that one down.

who owns syllabi at UNC-Chapel Hill?

Starting this year, in the wake of a recent academic integrity scandal, all UNC-Chapel Hill departments are required to maintain electronic files of all syllabi currently in rotation. The documents are collected from individual instructors via e-mail or uploaded to Sakai, our course management system. This seems to me like an opportunity: why not develop a tool to allow instructors or departments to upload the syllabi to a central repository, maybe even assign some basic metadata at ingest, and then draw on that for the Seeing Syllabi tool? Or barring that, simply ask each department to provide us with their files each semester to add to our own database?

There are few technical barriers to implementing such an approach. In fact, the most significant obstacle is the as yet incompletely answered question of who owns these documents. Who has the right to make the decision to donate a department’s syllabi to the Seeing Syllabus corpus or utilize the central repository? Do the departments even own them? Do the faculty members? Or does the University own them, since we draft them under its employ? Can the Dean preempt the departments and faculty and mandate the documents’ release to a UNC project? Would that violate someone’s copyright, or maybe that would be considered fair use? I met with Gunnar Wieboldt, Associate University Counsel here at UNC-Chapel Hill, to learn what I could about UNC’s policy on the ownership of course syllabi. Fascinating stuff. Here is some of what I learned:

UNC-CH’s copyright policy specifically exempts the products that faculty and researchers create while in UNC’s employ from the typical work-for-hire provision that grants ownership of any works created by an employee for an employer to that employer. (Staff members’ products, on the other hard, are still considered work for hire.) At UNC, faculty retain the copyright to all the work they create at UNC, including teaching materials. These types of work are referred to as Non-Directed Works. But UNC reserves the right to use those materials within the bounds of University projects and purposes. I believe this is a fairly common approach, at least among major institutions. From UNC’s language on faculty ownership of Non-Directed Works:

“The creator of such a work shall own the work unless it is a Traditional or Non-Directed Work Involving Exceptional Use of University Resources, a Directed Work, a Sponsored or Externally Contracted Work requiring University ownership of copyright, or a Work for Hire (defined below.) As a condition of employment, faculty and EPA non-faculty creators of a Traditional or Non-Directed Work shall be deemed to have granted the University a non-exclusive, non-transferable, royalty-free license to use the work for the University’s own educational or research use unless such a license will impede scholarly publication or similar activities.” [Italics mine.]

It’s important to note that copyright status can differ between and possibly even within syllabi. If it ever comes down to it, what matters is the proportion of creative expression—basically, passages of the instructor’s original prose—to things like lists of readings, schedules, and more or less standard course policies. For example, even the most well-curated and unique list of readings may not be copyrightable. Assignments, course descriptions, etc., would be. So some syllabi may not be copyrightable at all. Unfortunately, those are probably the ones that are least useful to researchers.

No one has attempted an Open Access or FOIA request to obtain UNC syllabi yet. At the moment, the University considers syllabi to be faculty members’ creative expression/intellectual property, not public documents—so technically, for use outside the University, permission would have to be obtained at the faculty level, not the institutional level. However, rulings like the 2013 decision in NCTQ vs. Minnesota State Colleges and Universities may challenge that. (See my post on open access for details on that one.)

open access: it’s complicated

Access–open or otherwise–to course syllabi has become quite a hot debate in certain circles. We at the Seeing Syllabi project wish to make a large-scale corpus of syllabi available and analyzable for primarily teaching- and research-related aims: analysis, deconstruction, archiving, inspiration. The Open Syllabus Project has the ambitious goal of collecting millions of syllabi in one place from across the country for similar reasons. But we’re not the only ones in the game: groups like the National Council on Teacher Quality, the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, and the National Association of Scholars are attempting to use state open records laws to compel public universities across the country to make their course documents public.

Let’s first consider the Pope Center and the NAS. These organizations style themselves as groups of educational-reform-minded intellectuals advocating open access to ensure that standards are being upheld and courses are being taught as advertised. They are tireless proponents of “access”, staging lawsuits and researching state law and policy across the country. They invoke the impassioned rhetoric of free speech, equal access, truth in advertising, increasing the “diversity of ideas taught” (from the Pope Center’s About Us page).

The Pope Center is a self-appointed watchdog for the right wing, focusing on higher education in North Carolina: that is what it means when it declares its intention to defend “traditional principles of justice, ethics, and liberal education”. Their recently released paper on “Opening Up the Classroom: Greater Transparency through Better, More Accessible Course Information” cynically and deceptively invokes the language of openness and concern about transfer credits and registration processes to mask more revealing passages:

“…academic freedom has a dark side. Sometimes the deviation from the course description goes far beyond acceptable boundaries. Professors use their classrooms as their personal soapboxes, instead of teaching an academic subject; in some disciplines it is hard to get a degree without heavy exposure to radical indoctrination. Other professors use their positions to introduce material that is shocking, immoral, and offensive to extremes–in recent years, professors at major US universities have offered defenses of racial genocide, Islamic Jihad, and bestiality.”

The National Association of Scholars is similarly hostile to “radical indoctrination”; its Issues and Ideals page displays an even more passionate level of rhetoric, pledging to oppose “widespread plagiarism” and “research fraud” (fine) in the same breath that it condemns “overemphasis on issues of race, gender, class, sexual orientation” (um).

For the record: I am not expressing a lack of bias on this subject. I am aware of and happy to articulate my own politics, and I am not interested in silencing anyone else’s. However, it is infuriating to see the language of intellectual and academic integrity, openness, honesty, rigor, transparency, and diversity used to intimidate and manipulate intellectuals, students, and academic communities.

The National Council on Teacher Quality is a bit more moderate, although it has its detractors. It boasts a bipartisan (actually, tripartisan, if you include independents) board and support from the Bill and Malinda Gates Foundation, and it is concerned in a broader sense in the quality of public education in the US. It’s had some success, as well, compelling the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to hand over their course syllabi in 2013. This case may prove important, as it determines that the NCTQ’s proposed use of the documents fell under the fair use doctrine. Here is one summary of the Court of Appeals of Minnesota’s majority opinion on the case:

“The National Council on Teacher Quality (“NCTQ”), a nonprofit research and advocacy education-reform organization, requested copies of faculty-authored syllabi from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (“MnSCU”) under the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. MnSCU is a statutorily created organization of the state’s colleges and universities and is governed by a board of trustees (that is itself a state agency) that maintains educational syllabi. MnSCU refused to honor the NCTQ’s data request because it believed that providing the syllabi might allow the NCTQ to infringe on the intellectual-property rights of the faculty members who authored them. The Federal Copyright Act preempted the Minnesota Government Data Practices Act. The trial court concluded that although the syllabi were the intellectual property of MnSCU faculty-authors, the NCTQ’s proposed use was fair use. MnSCU appealed, citing the Minnesota Act. MnSCU did not explain how it might become liable to the faculty-authors under the Copyright Act even if the NCTQ does infringe their copyrights, nor did it challenge the lower court’s ruling that NCTQ’s use will be fair use. The Court AFFIRMED the trial court’s ruling.”

The NCTQ filed a similar suit against the University of Wisconsin system in 2012. In 2013 Wisconsin settled, turning the syllabi over and paying damages. However, it’s important to note the NCTQ is not attempting to make these syllabi public; they are seeking access for their own use to review and rate educational and training standards.

There are other groups like these. They are not all the same, and I do not mean to imply that all right-wing or conservative political and social perspectives are worthless, cynical, or antithetical to intellectualism, education, or open access and open source in the most honest sense of those terms. However, their presence on the scene gives the lie to any overly simple or idealistic view of what making all course documents truly open and public might involve and what purposes such an archive might be used for. For now, the Seeing Syllabi project is focusing its collection and analytical efforts on UNC-Chapel Hill syllabi only and will limit the use of the tool to UNC-Chapel Hill-affiliated users. However, should this project advance to a larger scale, these issues will require a good deal more attention.

 

general updates

My collaborators and I came into this project with a good dose of curiosity about what we’d be able to accomplish in this limited timeframe (a single semester) and with our limited funds. The closer we come to the end of the semester, the closer we come to understanding what we’ll be able to deliver in December: a basic, working prototype of a front-end search and visualization tool that communicates with a database of syllabi. I do feel confident that we’ll be able to present something that works. The interface will call on a much smaller subset of the existing database we’re building with the Open Syllabus Project, but it’s perfectly fine and appropriate to test functionality on a small data set before moving to a larger scale; in fact, the incremental approach is preferable, as it’s much easier to locate errors in a small field than a large one.

The developers on the team–John D. Martin III, the project graduate assistant, and undergraduates Brandon O’Gorman, Jeremy He, and Gerardo Gonzalez, along with parallel work on topic modeling by DH practicum student Michael Millner–are currently shouldering most of the load. The designs are done, concepts have been talked through and challenged, budgets and grant materials written, contacts established…I’ll have to revisit all these elements at some point, but for the time being, I am concentrating my own efforts on making sure the team has what it needs to progress. The OSP folk are focusing on populating the corpus with as many syllabi as possible. Since we’re interested in getting a jump on the tricky process of metadata extraction, we’re setting up our own local server with a smaller set of documents for testing. I expect we’ll move to testing our tools on the OSP corpus down the road.

Lately, I’ve become interested in the idea of establishing a central repository of UNC-Chapel Hill syllabi. Since all UNC-CH departments now require e-copies of current course syllabi to be uploaded to Sakai or their own servers, we know the content is there, and I feel strongly that maintaining a central repo of UNC syllabi over time would provide an excellent source of information and historical record. I’m in discussions with the excellent folk of the Carolina Digital Repository, who may be willing to host such an effort. Today I’m meeting with a representative from the University Counsel’s office to determine what legal obstacles we might face in creating such a collection and/or donating its contents to the overall OSP efforts. I’ll blog later on about what I learn.

Finally, I’m continuing to work through the whys and wherefores of this project. The reason the syllabus as an object, an artifact, and a form, fascinates me remains elusive. Obviously, syllabi can be read and analyzed productively from a distance. One of the greatest values of so-called “distant reading”—to invoke Franco Moretti’s term for the computational analysis of literature and literary forms—may be the way such analyses defamiliarize well-known forms and texts. I understand the practical utility of developing this tool: analyzing large numbers of digital or digitized syllabi will permit us to trace topics, trends, patterns, formal choices, and convergences in educational practice over time. And I am highly appreciative of the pedagogical value of working on such a collaborative, transdisciplinary project. But subtler realizations—and better practices—may also be gained from coming to understand each syllabus as it exists within a continuum, as a data point and a record to which future syllabi will contribute. This calls for a closer reading and examination of current best practices and of the form as a form.

humanities people and programming

Today I’d like to reflect briefly on the ongoing question of how humanities scholars engaged in digital humanities practices interact with the seemingly mysterious, even magical processes of digital technology. This is an edited version of something I posted in response to a HASTAC.org blog post (I won’t link to it now; if I get permission I’ll add it) that I thought would be useful to the conversations around this project.

As a humanities-trained scholar now teaching primarily humanistic approaches to thinking through and working with technology within a computer science department, I’ve struggled with the urge to learn to program–or, rather, the creeping sense that I had to learn to program to understand my subject and, frankly, validate my perspective. This debate never seems to lose steam within the DH/humanities computing communities. Do digital humanists–or all humanists–need to code?

I decided I would. I’ve attended programming-for-humanists workshops, taken a 12-week intensive web development bootcamp (bloc.io), taught myself enough JavaScript and C++ to play around with Unity, and put myself through countless online tutorials in Python. My conclusion: programming is really really hard. If you don’t know any code coming in, and unless you have a natural knack for thinking mathematically/in code (I do not; some people find it dead easy from day one), turning yourself into a fully fledged, independently operating programmer is going to require countless obsessive hours–and take countless obsessive hours away from things like research and writing and grad school and teaching. So it depends on your priorities. I will never be a very good programmer. Frankly, I don’t have the time nor the inclination to make it happen. Someone else will always be much more skilled than I, so why not collaborate with that person and work to my own strengths and interests? Isn’t collaboration one of the great pleasures of DH projects?

However. Knowing some code and understanding how web design and software development and text mining and visualization work–what languages are useful for what tasks, what resources are required to complete a project and what it takes to get them, basic feasibility questions, etc.–has been invaluable to my ability to work and communicate with programmers and to speak, teach, write, and learn about technology. So–and this is just what’s been true for me–I do recommend that humanities scholars who work with or on digital media and tools, technocultures, etc., dive into programming: just don’t feel like you have to become the programmer. (Code is also crazy fascinating on a syntactic and structural level–studying how it works has helped me think about so-called “natural language”–say, English–and natural language systems differently.)

There are lots of ways you can use digital tools and media without having to write *too* much code. I’ll add to the list visual code editing tools like App Inventor and Scratch, which allow you to work with and learn about the syntax and operations of code without having to actually write the stuff–they’re often used to teach programming concepts to young people (and non-programmers). Also, markup languages like HTML and XML, while not technically coding languages, are fairly accessible to humanities folk and have direct practical applicability in many of the digital projects we end up working on.

 

educating through DH projects

I just got the exciting news that a team of advanced undergrads from CS professor Diane Pozefsky’s software engineering class has chosen to work on Seeing Syllabi as their course project. The course has a long history of focusing their efforts on developing software and computing solutions for local clients; I pitched the project to the group on Monday and am delighted that some of the students took interest. On Wednesday we’ll meet to determine whether they’d like to focus on the web app, search/text mining, or text visualization aspects.

This development brings up one of my favorite aspects of DH projects, something that the sciences have long known but the humanities don’t connect with quite so deeply: the power of collaboration in learning. Large-scale (and even some smaller scale) projects in, for example, computer science simply can’t be completed by a single programmer or developer. There’s so much complexity; the work is incredibly time-consuming; and in many projects, many types of highly specialized knowledge and practice are necessary for success. Not that the humanities don’t produce profound collaborative works–consider all the skills that go into making music, staging a play, running a conference, or conducting large-scale research studies. However, it’s worth noting that the typical argument in a peer-reviewed publication in computer science has two authors at the very least; many have six, seven, ten, or more. In the humanities, we find many more single-author publications–which makes sense, of course, considering the type of content they’re communicating. But what would we find if we more actively pursued collaborative thought and research projects in the humanities? Digital humanities projects challenge us, sometimes mightily, by bringing people with diverse skills and strengths together and requiring them to communicate. This doesn’t mean that all humanists should learn code (although I do think that all humanists should learn some) and all programmers should become literary critics; it does mean that we have to understand each other’s work–its capabilities, its content, its processes–to work together happily and well. So.

This, finally, brings me to my point. Because DH projects are interdisciplinary by nature, they require collaboration. And as anyone who’s ever stood before (or in) a classroom knows, collaboration is (when done right) great pedagogy. Diane’s students will learn through the work they do for us, and I fully expect to learn as much from them. I believe strongly in maintaining a come-one-come-all culture, in sharing credit, in facilitating the needs of the project and supporting the learning and engagement of those involved in it. I look forward to extending this opportunity to make and learn to Diane’s students, and I thank them in advance for the time and help they’re offering us.

new semester, new project

We’re back from another fleeting summer, and it’s time to start work on Seeing Syllabi in earnest. Not that summer was “off”, exactly, or that this is our first pass at the project. In this post, I’ll describe what we’ve done so far and where we’re going with all this.

Pam and I (Pamella Lach, the extraordinarily competent and imaginative Digital Innovation Lab manager) have been meeting since January 2013 to scale the project, generate ideas, work out a budget, and do what we like to call “develop a working relationship” (that is to say: trade stories about our families, unruly dogs, graduate studies, head colds, and strange dreams, and laugh a lot). In the process, we’ve identified a semester-size chunk of the original Seeing Syllabi proposal, then called IVI (see the IVI project page for details on the original IVI plan and how our revised approach has developed) that feels both true to the enormous concept that we started with and valuable to a variety of potential users. The rest of the fellowship semester will be devoted to building a prototype of this core function. There are four main things that we’ll need to make this happen. I’ll describe each and say a few things about where each element stands for now.

  1. A significant corpus of PDF-format syllabi. This is the valuable content at the very center of the project; we’re nowhere without it. We thought we’d have to develop the database ourselves and were bracing for the task of soliciting donations from various institutions, scraping the web (with inspiration from Dan Cohen’s earlier Syllabus Finder project), and begging UNC’s Sakai people for data dumps. Then, while presenting on a Digital Shorts panel at the American Studies Association conference in fall 2012, I encountered Alex Gil and Dennis Tenen of the Open Syllabus Project, who are working on compiling just such a corpus, along with a back-end architecture to make the documents accessible to web apps like ours and other analytical approaches. My friend Steve Brauer of St. John Fisher College–one of the collaborators on the original large-scale IVI proposal–and I set up a video conference with them, and the relationship has developed from there. The OSP shares our commitment to openness, cooperation, inclusiveness, sharing, and collaboration, and we’re organizing our efforts as best we can. 
  2. Algorithms to extract metadata from the corpus of syllabi. If you’re familiar with the language of data mining, you know that PDFs and other primarily textual documents are what’s called “unstructured data”–they aren’t arranged into tagged and labelled tables and containers that make it easy for computers to search, organize, and analyze the content. We have to write programs that are able to accept new PDFs and automatically scan them, identify the information we need–author names, text titles, dates, institutional affiliation, discipline, and so on–and tag those documents with that information, the metadata. Only then will we–or anyone–be able to search and visualize patterns within the documents. Since the OSP is focusing on developing the corpus itself and its back-end architecture, we are working on this piece. We’ve hired the brilliant John D. Martin III, a former system administrator and web developer and current PhD student at UNC-Chapel Hill’s School of Information and Library Science, to help us.
  3. Visualization algorithms. Once the metadata are in place, users will be able to search and run analytics on the dataset by typical syllabus elements like author names, titles, dates, institutions, disciplines, and more. Imagine a phrase net like this, in which each node, or word, in the net represents a syllabus, color-coded by discipline; clicking on a node will link you to that document. Or a network diagram, in which items are clustered based on similar elements between documents. I’m also inspired by projects like the Stanford Dissertation Browser, which lets you sort and explore dissertations by discipline in surprising ways. It’s also very pretty. Highlighting interesting interdisciplinary connections between courses and course materials is one of my pet interests in this project.
  4. A web-based front end. Quite simply, we need a well-designed web app that will accept user queries, send them to the database, and return search results and/or visualizations.

So that’s a lot of moving pieces.

I’ve also been doing a lot of thinking about “digital humanities”–what it means, what it is, what relationship it has to the “humanities computing” of yore. Digital humanities is an odd area–not because we haven’t yet managed to define it in a way that feels satisfying to everyone (I appreciate this uncertainty and, frankly, hope it continues to generate questioning and flux), but because at root, we’re dealing with a population of people working with media that they really don’t understand. Advanced graphical user interfaces mean that humanists are able to work in rather sophisticated ways with digital formats, tools, and media without understanding much, or anything, about whatever is going on behind the scenes. Learning to use some of these tools, even through a GUI, can be, as they say, non-trivial. Yes, digital tools and analytics can inspire unexpected and exciting ways of thinking about and interacting with texts and data in anyone, no matter her technical background or savvy. However, I’m interested in exploring the edge between humanists’ (or, really, anyone’s) developing proficiency as users of these tools and many users’ lack of understanding of the nature of the tools themselves or how they operate. What does it mean to work closely with a tool we understand so little about? How does that shape the thinking we do through and around that tool?

To this end, I’m always working on increasing my own technological literacy. This spring and summer I participated in a challenging 12-week web development bootcamp with Bloc; it did not turn me into a professional developer, but I learned a lot. This semester I’m joining a data mining class at SILS with the grad student I mentioned, John. We’ll work together to better understand the problem we’re trying to solve and how best to approach it.

All the time I’ve spent thinking about how to analyze syllabi–what people might want to know about them, what they can tell us about how we teach and learn–has grown into a deep curiosity about the syllabus form itself: its history, what it was/is/should be, what kind of promises it makes, how it makes them, how it’s changing, and more. We may slowly be moving away from the traditional syllabus format in favor of web sites and fillable fields on course management systems, so it’s also possible that the corpus we’re producing will someday constitute an important historical record. As the fellowship semester progresses, I’ll be exploring and working to better understand both this project’s technical languages and its content: the material and conceptual form of the syllabus itself.

Finally, yesterday was the first meeting of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities Faculty Fellows. The group will gather for breakfast, presentations, and conversation each Wednesday morning. The three-hour meeting flew by: I’m honored and a little stunned to be in such accomplished company and am reminded once again of the great good fortune of this fellowship semester. More detail on our sessions together will surely follow, but I wanted to end this inaugural post with a note of thanks to the IAH and the DIL for the gifts of their time and support.