Valuing the Syllabus as Scholarship: A Workshop

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Yesterday, literary and digital studies scholar Mark Sample tweeted out "So, @safiyanoble’s Algorithms of Oppression came out yesterday, I got my copy today, and it’s on my syllabus for Monday."  This tweet offers a great example of the cultural relevance and currency of the syllabus — and why the HuMetricsHSS team is hosting a workshop at Michigan State University next week with approximately a dozen scholars, instructors, and staff to explore "Valuing the Syllabus as Scholarship."

Sample's tweet evokes two key principles HuMetricsHSS has been exploring: first, that there are many objects — such as the syllabus — that are critical representations of a scholar's intellectual labor, and we should better articulate nuanced understandings of what those objects are, what they reveal, and what role they play in the scholarly communication landscape; and second, that the syllabus can serve as an indicator of scholarly impact, such as a vehicle revealing citation networks in the humanities and social sciences, and that perhaps it could more rapidly reflect scholarly impact than other forms of citation analysis and even reveal new indicators of value-based scholarly excellence.

The workshop next week focuses on these two aligned but distinct components. Participants will first explore the syllabus as an object of scholarship in its own right by examining its formal components and the values embedded or hidden in its construction. The goal is to develop mechanisms for the instructor to tell a better story about the values and goals they infuse in their syllabus, so as to better articulate a broader understanding of their own scholarly practice. By starting with an articulation of values, we argue, we establish a better baseline for the evaluation of impact based on actual goals rather than proxy indicators.

The second component of the workshop focuses on the syllabus as an indicator of scholarship, revealing more about the authors of works featured in a syllabus, their impact and their influence. As we have argued previously,

We wondered how the syllabus might enhance citation indicators in the humanities and how such indicators might help us rethink and influence notions of impact that currently favor an article-based intellectual economy. Does the syllabus reveal the circulation of ideas in humanities and social science subjects in more effective ways than traditional citation networks using only articles? Is the syllabus a site of more rapid or even potentially up-to-date scholarship, rather than that reflected in the slow burn of a book three years in the making?

If we read inclusion in a syllabus as an act of citation, we can begin to track the influence of work like Safiya Noble's book not only just after it is released but also its long tail: its influence on the next generation of scholars. How is it used in the classroom, and for how long? Which sections of the book garner the most attention? What readings and activities might it be coupled with? Do students who read a certain text in a graduate seminar go on to include it in their own syllabi?

As we continue to work with MSU's Data Science team to think about how we can capture these indicators through semi-automated or automated means, the workshop will allow us to explore with others the syllabus as an articulation of scholarly values and goals, and the potential abuses and possible opportunities in these approaches.  We look forward to reporting back in a few weeks.

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