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May 30, 2016

(Indi Samarajiva/Flickr Creative Commons)

Let’s say you’re a college professor. You’ve got your tweed jacket, you’ve set up your lectern, and you’re all ready to fill young minds with knowledge.

Now… what books do you teach?

There’s a lot of pressure coming from different directions; pressure to include more diversity in your syllabi and pressure to stick with the classics.

And if you’re wondering what college professors are actually choosing to do – and what’s ending up on all these syllabi – the Open Syllabus Project out of Columbia has combed through a million syllabi.

They’ve discovered that the most popular piece of fictiontaught in colleges right now is “Frankenstein,” by Mary Shelley. “Oedipus,” “Hamlet,” “The Odyssey,” and “The Canterbury Tales” are also right up there.

Joe Karaganis is the Vice President of the American Assembly, a public policy institute at Columbia University. He helped sift through the data on all of these syllabi. He says this embrace of traditionalism has surprised even college professors: “They’ve discovered that many of the fields that they’re working in are much more traditional than sometimes they’re represented as being.”

But that doesn’t mean that the reading list is limited to old white men.

“Yes, the old white male Western canon is alive and well,” Karaganis says. “But if you’re looking at the works that are taught that have been published in the last 50 years - especially in literature - it’s a much more multi-cultural canon… So you have Mary Shelley, for example, Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, Leslie Marmon Silko. These are all works that have come to prominence and been integrated into the canon in ways that I think suggest a real diversification and a valuing of other kinds of experience in ways that were very contested 30 years ago, when I was in college.”

But that hasn’t stopped political controversy.

Especially when the Open Syllabus Project found that “The Communist Manifesto” by Karl Marx was the third most taught book on college campuses.

Karaganis says that, “this immediately generated a bunch of stories about how America’s students are being indoctrinated into Communist theory and this explains the rise of Bernie Sanders. And some blogs went in and looked at the data and they realized that Marx is taught frequently, but the Bible is never taught. We don’t have the Bible in our findings.” Karaganis took a dive into the data and tried to figure out what the heck was going on.

And he noticed two things.

One was that part of Marx’s popularity is due to the fact that “The Communist Manifesto” isn’t just being taught in one discipline. It's part of sociology courses, history courses, political science courses, sometimes economics courses.

And The Bible?

Well, apparently, it has algorithm problems. The Open Syllabus Project’s algorithm can’t handle single word titles with unspecified authors. 

Karaganis is continuing to collect more syllabi, and giving some actual attention to a document that’s been fought over forever but hasn’t undergone serious, big-data analysis - until now.

This segment was produced by our partners at Innovation Hub.

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