Sharing is caring (syllabi version)

The fall semester began for us last week, and so there are some new syllabi online from me for the current versions of my undergrad course on media and technology and my grad seminar on cultural studies. I know some people are very protective of their syllabi, and don’t like to share them publicly . . . but I have never fully understood the reasoning behind that.

To be sure, I get why people don’t make the extra effort to create and maintain an online archive of such documents. That takes time and energy, and a willingness to curate a virtual space or three for oneself, and not everyone is keen to do that. It’s the reluctance to share syllabi at all that I find baffling.

A syllabus, after all, is not the same thing as the actual course experience — from either side of the desk. Someone can’t reproduce what I actually do in the classroom as an instructor just because they have a copy of my reading lists, assignments, and policies. Similarly, it’s not as if a would-be student can pick up my syllabus and duplicate the in-class discussions and exercises, the evaluative moments of feedback on assignments, or (perhaps most crucially, at least within the larger logic of the institution) the credentialing function of course grades.

More pragmatically, it’s not as if syllabi can be kept under lock and key — not if they’re going to serve the necessary functions of letting students know the basic rules of the courses in question. Every semester, those of us who teach give our syllabi out to dozens, maybe even hundreds, of perfect strangers — some of whom immediately drop our courses (not necessarily because of the syllabus) and disappear from our lives (and even a pretense of our control) forever. Once you’ve given a syllabus to students, you should assume that it’s a public document . . . because, for all practical purposes, it is.

On top of all that, though, and without assuming that there’s something more magical to be found in my syllabi than is in anyone else’s (there isn’t), I have always figured that there’s a genuine value in sharing such documents publicly. When I first started teaching (and I know I’m not alone in this), I used things I liked and admired from other people’s syllabi to help me figure out how to design my own courses. And even if it’s not at all the same (and never could be the same) as actually taking a seminar, a syllabus does offer someone who wants to know (one version of) a reading list to use if they want to learn more about a given topic. These things aren’t — or at least they shouldn’t be — trade secrets. At worst, they’re historical trivia: my popular culture syllabi from the mid-1990s will be of very limited value to anyone who wants to teach a popular culture course in 2022. At best, though, they’re a bundle of resources that might help someone think about how to design an assignment in a course they’re scheduled to teach, or figure out where they might start reading if they want to try and learn something on their own about a given subject.

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