By Angela Suico
With a few minor differences, each floor of Rice Hall appears to be almost identical. Uniformly spaced benches sit outside the faculty offices and bulletin boards featuring educational opportunities and lecture advertisements line the walls. But the third floor, which houses the Religion, History, and Jewish Studies departments, exhibits one crucial difference. Several of the office doors and one large bulletin board hanging across from the entrance to the department offices display an additional type of document: the syllabi for the current semester’s courses.
Rice embodies the various methods of archiving current syllabi at Oberlin. Certain departments have their syllabi listed on the Oberlin website, while others have nothing. Some professors post syllabi on their personal webpages, and some don’t. Likewise, some professors tape copies of their syllabi to their doors, while others do not. These disparate methods of archiving syllabi raise the question of whether the College could establish a uniform system that could increase overall syllabus availability for students.
Such a system could facilitate the process of gaining access to a syllabus during add/drop. Currently, there are various ways that students may view a syllabus for a course in which they’re not enrolled during add/drop. They can e-mail a professor and request a copy of the syllabus, visit the department office and ask to view the copy on file with the administrative assistant, or drop by the professor’s office hours. But the add/drop process could become easier if every department had one standardized method that would allow students to view syllabi at their own convenience. Posting all syllabi on office doors or on a bulletin board, as the History, Religion, and Jewish Studies departments do, could be one possibility. Establishing an online syllabi archive could be another.
Two years ago, a group comprised of faculty from the dean’s office, OCTET, and the College discussed developing an online syllabi archive. The group’s purpose was to brainstorm different ideas for increasing the amount of academic and artistic content on Oberlin’s website for the benefit of individuals both within and outside the Oberlin community. One such idea was the establishment of a searchable syllabi database, which according to Hispanic Studies professor Sebastiaan Faber would have allowed both professors and students to search the content of other courses, allowing the former group to note the connections between their classes and those of their peers and the latter group to think of their educational interests in terms outside of their major.
“The better students see what is available in their area of interest,” said Faber, “then they can really define their areas of interest as something that comes out of them. Not ‘my area of interest is German and therefore I look under German department’ but ‘my area of interest is Europe in the 1940s, so…what is available to me between history in Germany and [France] and [Spain]?’”
Faber also explained that the syllabi database would have enhanced students’ education by allowing them to pick courses that would examine the same material in different ways. “If you can take three courses that have one or two texts in common, among the three, how interesting would that be? Because for sure they would be read differently from different angles, put to different uses in the classes, but…to experience all three ways…gives an added value to whatever the three separate courses would have been. And again, here syllabi would be useful.”
Because of technical issues and difficulties in deciding how to allocate resources for the project, the searchable syllabi database never progressed past the conceptual stage. According to OCTET Director Albert Borroni, one factor halting the creation of the searchable syllabi database was the problem of how to ensure that the search results would only be available to individuals in the College community, rather than any general user conducting a search on Google. This projected need was an acknowledgement of the fact that some professors refrain from posting their syllabi online because doing so could leave them vulnerable to intellectual property theft. “Faculty take a long time to create these things,” says Borroni. “It’s almost, for some of them, like writing a book.”
Indeed, creating a syllabus is a complex process that requires hard work. Sociology professor Veljko Vujacic affirmed the importance of considering timing when developing a syllabus. “You have to think about the rhythm of the semester, you have to think about how to balance assignments with readings. What are you gonna’ do in week seven, when everyone’s doing midterms?…How much extra out-of-class time [will you require of students]?”
According to Vujacic, the intended audience for the course can also affect the difficulty of writing a syllabus. Because introductory-level courses attract students with different academic interests and experiences, designing syllabi for such courses is more difficult than it is for an upper-level seminar, where the students have more engaged interest in the subject matter.
“You’re gonna’ get future biology majors together with future sociology majors together with future computer science majors in your class. Therefore you have to make it in such a way that it has a broad appeal,” said Vujacic. “Secondly, you have to make it simple enough for first-year students and you also have to make it difficult enough for them, because some people will be bored if it’s too simple.”
The difficulty of designing a syllabus may also depend on the professor’s personal teaching style. History professor Steve Volk, for example, teaches his lower-level courses to maximize discussion time in class. Rather than spend his class time lecturing, he records video lectures for students to watch beforehand and reserves class meetings for discussion alone. Not relying on the “safety net” of lectures makes syllabus development a challenging process for him, he explained.
“[When] I go into a class I have no idea what’s going to happen,” explained Volk. “Ironically, it requires more syllabus preparation as opposed to less…For each class, I really have to know what I want to come out of that class. It might not be what comes out of it, but I can’t go into class without some idea of what it is that I want. And that means I have to put a lot into the syllabus.”
Syllabus development is thus a task that requires much thought and attention to detail, and the need to respect the hard work it requires of professors raises one of the biggest questions regarding the development of an online syllabi archive: which password-protected part of the Oberlin wide web could host a syllabi archive and meet the needs of both students and professors alike?
Because of the difficulties and potential costs involved with making changes to the system, Presto would not be a likely option for hosting syllabi. Blackboard, on the other hand, could be a feasible, if imperfect solution. According to Borroni, syllabi could be placed within a Blackboard module similar to the one allowing users to view the information for different academic, administrative, and student organizations. Just as the “Browse Open Organization” module provides links to different groups like “Academic Departments” and “Student Organizations,” the syllabi module would provide links to different departments that would display lists of courses and links to their syllabi. But while the creation of such a module would be an inexpensive, lower-stakes option than Presto, it would still not be the ideal forum for archiving syllabi, as some professors do not use Blackboard.
“Not all faculty use it [and] are comfortable with it,” said Borroni. “At some level I totally understand, because if you’re not using it for anything else, why should [you] have to go there and put up [your] syllabus? So there has to be more for getting and motivating people to [use Blackboard].”
According to Borroni, another factor that contributed to the stagnation of the searchable syllabi database was the fact that working out the technical details of the database was not a pressing priority for OCTET, and the same would be true of developing an online syllabi archive. While noting the archive’s value for students, Borroni says that its establishment is “related” but “tangential” to OCTET’s primary objective of helping teachers integrate technology with their curriculum. “We talk to [professors] about Blackboard, about Google, about Blogger, about Wikis, about whatever it is to achieve their goal in their class,” said Borroni. “And that takes up a lot of time for us as an office and we have a lot of other duties that we manage so [developing an online syllabi archive is] something that’s kind of peripheral.”
Regardless of the various logistical challenges that the establishment of an online syllabi archive poses, however, the very base line for even starting a conversation about such a possibility is the demonstration of widespread student interest. Some of the students interviewed for this article are ambivalent over the idea of a syllabi archive. Third-year Jonathan Weiss said that while he would make use of an archive if it were available, he believes that visiting a class during add/drop is important regardless of syllabus accessibility and does not see a pressing need for an archive. “I usually go by the professor mostly,” said Weiss. “I always try to sit in on a class before I take it or not. A class could have a great-looking syllabus and still suck, and vice versa, so I don’t know if [having a syllabi archive] is that crucial.”
Many students, however, are supportive of the idea. Some students explained that such an archive would enable them to better understand the content of the course. Third-year Tess Yanisch said that viewing syllabi online would be helpful because “a class description and a little blurb on the course website doesn’t tell you all that much about the class necessarily and so there are some things—particularly politics or literature or religion or sociology courses—where seeing the reading list might change your opinion of the class.”
Other students, thinking of the benefits of not only having syllabi available during add/drop but also during registration period, asserted that such a resource would allow them to better evaluate a course’s workload and decide whether they can handle the coursework in addition to that of their other classes. “As a science major,” said fourth-year John Paddock, “I frequently find that I’m trying to balance the laboratory and classroom parts of courses, and so to be able to see the syllabus and have a better understanding not only of the classwork but also what will be required in the lab or [what is] to be done outside of the actual scheduled meeting time would…be very helpful.”
In reality, however, due to the intricacy of designing a syllabus (not to mention the management of their regular teaching duties during registration period), many professors complete their syllabi during the last few days before classes begin. For professors, the syllabi archive’s purpose as a tool for facilitating add/drop period could thus carry implications for the timing of syllabi development. History professor Gary Kornblith said that, “the challenge would be getting [syllabi] up by the start of the semester, because most faculty are still working on their syllabi the weekend before the start of the semester. I don’t think that’s insuperable, but it’s a challenge.”
Professors also express mixed feelings about whether an online syllabi archive would be personally beneficial to them. Miller said that an archive could lead to a more stable class roster during add/drop, but Vujacic doubted whether the ability to see a syllabus beforehand would affect the frequent enrollment changes of the first two weeks of class. “People come to the first class, [and] they think they’re gonna’ take it,” said Vujacic, “[but then] they see that it’s too much work, or it’s not their cup of tea. Sometimes it’s just personal—[they may say] ‘I don’t like the style of this professor, I don’t like the style of that one.’”
If students did decide that an online syllabi archive would be useful to them, Student Senator Ilyssa Meyer ’13 explained that the Senate could mediate a dialogue between students and the administration by creating a task force that would include “people [who would have] the best interests of the faculty at heart and also people who would have the best interests of the students at heart” and would “make recommendations to the general faculty.” A question to gauge student interest in an online syllabi archive is listed in the Student Senate referendum for this semester.
Ultimately, if the establishment of greater online syllabus access should prove too challenging, requesting that all professors post their syllabi on their doors or that departments hang syllabi bulletin boards near their offices always remains a viable option. Under those circumstances, students attempting to choose between an English, Religion, or History course may not have the luxury of viewing the syllabi for those courses at the click of a mouse, but at least they could find everything they need in one visit to Rice.