There has been significant progress toward gender parity in many academic fields — and beyond it in some. The usual starting point for looking at this question in the US is the NSF’s ‘Survey of Earned Doctorates,’ which provides an annually-updated account of trends in PhD education. According to the most recent report from 2021, women make up almost 72% of psychology PhDs, 68% of health science PhDs, 53% in the biomedical sciences, and 50% in the social sciences. From there, percentages drops quickly: 33% in the physical sciences, 28% in math and statistics, 26% in engineering, and 25% in computer and information science. These percentages are not a measure of later employment in those fields — in fact the reality is probably somewhat worse due to professional drop-off among women in the STEM fields in which they are a minority. But it’s a place to start.
There is a parallel, widely held but harder to empirically document argument that the role of women in the curriculum lags their presence as faculty and instructors — and in some fields by a lot. Here, Open Syllabus can offer solid confirmation. The new Gender Statistics dashboard in Open Syllabus Analytics explores the question of author and instructor gender ratios across the full syllabus collection — some 16 million in early 2023. The most useful view at the moment is of the 62 fields into which Open Syllabus classifies syllabi. The results are striking.
A few years ago we reported on the rates of growth in the adoption of ‘Open Educational Resource’ (OER) textbooks and ‘Open Access’ (OA) monographs. These are books published under Creative Commons licenses, which means that they can be used and circulated freely. In world of $200 commercial textbooks, OER textbooks, in particular, have become an important part of school and state efforts to reduce student costs.
But free has a few drawbacks. In markets for commercial textbooks (and most other goods), supply and demand are connected by the sale. Producers and consumers communicate through this information loop, and this relationship makes the market more or less efficient and — on the supply side — capable of adjusting.
The information loop for free digital books, on the other hand, isn’t closed. There is no sale or single point of access and titles are copied and circulate freely. It’s hard, accordingly, to know what the demand side of the OER and OA ecosystems looks like. And this lack of information becomes a problem for authors and publishers (the producers) and faculty and students (the consumers). Decisions to invest time and money by faculty, funders, libraries and others in creating new titles are made without strong insight into the demand for existing ones. Adoption decisions by faculty and staff are made without much visibility into the experience of other programs, which could provide models. Both sides of the equation involve risks, that those risks are hard to mitigate.
The Pudding published a fun and interesting visual exploration of which titles published in the 1990s have become part of the teaching canon in higher ed. The winner by a very large margin is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried — a book of linked stories about the Vietnam War published in 1990. Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things are #2 and #3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is #4. Here is how those titles track over the past decade (this is from Open Syllabus Analytics — which you can test drive)
I have no special insight here, but a couple thoughts.
Independent of literary merit, successful new titles need a socially resonant theme. Middle-aged English professors in the 1990s were in their teens and twenties during the Vietnam War — a formative experience that probably contributed to The Things They Carried‘s classroom success. Can we test that with OS data? I think so. By the 2010s, the same faculty were retiring and, to an extent, carrying The Things They Carried with them — out of the classroom, slowly, partially, over the decade. Canonization is durable but not permanent, and the semester calendar forces zero-sum choices in the selection of texts.
Harry Potter is a different story — and not a shocker if one looks at the contexts in which it is assigned. The Harry Potter series is assigned primarily in children’s literature classes — not the American literature classes
Open Syllabus is pleased to announce the receipt of a $1,750,000, 2-year grant from the Arcadia Fund.
The Arcadia grant will enable Open Syllabus to continue to expand the boundaries of open education by developing new ways to understand and navigate the curriculum in higher education. The grant will support work on course transfer and learning outcomes, as well as a range of new tools designed to make OS data a more powerful resource for students, faculty, and lifelong learners.
Open Syllabus is a 501(c)3, US-based, non-profit organization that maps the curriculum in higher education and builds tools to support open education.
The Arcadia Fund is a UK charitable organization that supports work on endangered cultural heritage, endangered ecosystems, and open access.
The 4th place rank of The Communist Manifesto among all assigned titles in the OS collection (in the 2.5 dataset) has been written about and referenced frequently. Is this high ranking weird? Suspicious? What’s the story here?
To save ourselves some time responding on Twitter, we’ve decided to create a resource for authors and tweeters interested in engaging with this datapoint. The list of tips below doesn’t exhaust the topic of Marx’s role in the curriculum, but hopefully it will help you avoid some common misinterpretations of OS data related to Marx and the Manifesto. Let’s go!
Why does The Communist Manifesto rank 4th overall? Because it is frequently assigned in multiple fields. It’s 5th in History, 5th in Political Science, 5th in Sociology, 49th in Philosophy, and 153rd in English, 200th in Anthropology. Many titles achieve high rank in one or sometimes two fields. Very few have relevance in three or more. If you study 19th and 20th century history, politics, or social thought, you will at some point be assigned The Communist Manifesto–maybe more than once.
Let’s consider this talking point: “Marx is the most assigned economist in U.S. college classes.” Be careful with this one. Whether Marx is properly classified as an economist or not, he is not widely assigned in Economics, where the Manifesto ranks 192nd. Nor is his major work of economics, Capital, a top title. It ranks 378th overall and 182nd in Economics. For those who worry that Marx has displaced
Most of Open Syllabus’s work is built on citation analysis — on the ability to determine what’s taught and what’s taught together.
But syllabi contain a lot of other information about teaching and learning. For the past two decades, the coin of the realm in many areas of higher ed has been the ‘learning outcome,’ conceived as a way to abstract from course contents to an enumerated set of learning goals. Sometimes these are very concrete and specific to a topic:
Sometimes they describe very broad sets of competencies:
Often, individual learning outcomes are parts of larger frameworks that cover the range of required knowledge for a program or degree. In other cases, faculty rely on learning outcome guidance (such as Bloom’s taxonomy) to develop sui generis outcomes for their classes. With a few exceptions, learning outcome frameworks in the US and Canada are defined locally, at the individual program level. This has the advantage of keeping faculty engaged with the frameworks and of keeping outcomes closely tied to student needs. It has the disadvantage, however, of making them useless for comparative or system-level understanding of the curriculum, and for solving problems that require such perspectives. One example of the latter that we’ve been working on is course transfer, in which the lack of common frameworks for understanding class outcomes makes it difficult to establish equivalence between classes.
There are, according to the Lumina Foundation, over 3000 learning outcome frameworks in use in the US. Despite some notable efforts
The Co-Assignment Galaxy represents titles based on the extent to which they appear together on syllabi. Each title is a dot whose size is determined by the title’s total assignment count in the collection. This simple principle structures a very detailed map of fields, subfields, and their boundaries. It also combines what we could call content-based and institutional ways of thinking about fields. By content based, I mean that the layout is derived solely from similarities in the assigned contents of millions of classes, with no a priori knowledge about how those classes divide into sociology or history or physics (we added the labels later). At the same time, we developed tools that do sort syllabi into the classificatory schemas used by universities, which reflect a more administrative and institutional view of fields. This institutional account shows up in the graph through the use of color. A title receives a color based on its predominant field of assignment. Field boundaries and border zones are represented in the Galaxy by this interaction between spatial layout and color.