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On-line Syllabi

In a fun discussion at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke writes:

I do agree, as I noted to Ralph above, that it would be worth having profession-wide standards of information collecting and transparency. Syllabi should all be posted, we should have a way of making teaching practices more transparent, there should be a relatively neutral professional body interested in observing and collecting data about classroom practices.

Agreed. Why aren’t all Williams syllabi posted on-line? Shouldn’t they be? Perhaps the CEP could take a look.

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#1 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On May 27, 2006 @ 8:23 am

I for one wish that syllabi were posted online for alumni — that way, you could “take” a Williams course 20 years after graduation.

However, I don’t believe syllabi should be posted in the clear. A syllabus is intellectual property; it’s part of what makes a Williams course better than courses at other universities. Posting course plans in the clear is similar to a business posting its business plans for the world to see — and no business in its right mind does that.

So I wish it were easier for members of the Williams family to see what the college is talking about and reading, but I think making such information available to the world at large is a mistake.

#2 Comment By frank uible On May 27, 2006 @ 9:27 am

Isn’t there (or shouldn’t there be) a rule of thumb relating to confidentiality to the effect that over a time certain there is a geometric relationship between the number of authorized persons receiving secret information and the number of unauthorized persons who ultimately gain access to it?

#3 Comment By Mike E. ’04 On May 27, 2006 @ 3:59 pm

If you want a syllabus, why not write to the prof. teaching the course, and ask for a copy? I’ve done this a couple of times with great results. If you are serious about your interest, I’m sure professors will respond positively.

#4 Comment By hwc On May 28, 2006 @ 1:00 am

Tim Burke usually posts his syllabi in his blog, generating some fascinating discussion among the professor types who follow his blog. If you click on David’s “Easily Distracted” link at the top of this thread, it takes you to a blog entry “History 63: The Whole Enchila” which is the course syllabus for one of Burke’s classes next fall. The comments in the blog entry go into discussions of texts, some of which are over my head, but interesting nevertheless.

I honestly don’t see any state secrets in college course syllabi. If professors around the country want to borrow ideas from some of the truly inspired teachers, who is the loser? I really doubt that Tim Burke would have a problem with it — after all, they can’t really borrow the meat of his courses, the discussion of ideas that occurs.

#5 Comment By hwc On May 28, 2006 @ 1:31 am

Tim Burke usually posts his syllabi in his blog, generating some fascinating discussion among the professor types who follow his blog.

#6 Comment By Derek On June 1, 2006 @ 11:13 am

I have no problem with professors voluntarily posting their syllabi in public places. I would have a huge problem with making it compulsory. My syllabi are a matter between me, my classes, my department ( we keep copies on file) and anyone I choose to share them with. Beyond that, I wrote it, I thought it through, I designed it — I will thus decide who has the right to read it. I cannot imagine a situaqtion in which I would not share it with someone who asked, but anyone who tells me that I “should” or “must” post them publicly needs more than argument by authority to win the day. Unless we have some widespread acusations about perfidy among the professoriate in the classroom, why create demands that are unnecessary and unjustifiable. If i incorporate research in progress in the classroom, must I post that? What about my lectures, that might prove to be the foundation of a textbook, or of thoughts that will become research, or that quite frankly just took me a damned long time to write and I don’t want to just give those away?

If you want my course materials, the materials on which I have worked quite hard, there is an easy way for you to get those: Take one of my classes. Outside of that, this implication that professors owe the wider community those materials is nonsense. If I choose to share them, and in most cases I would, that is one thing, but that I do not have a problem doing so is a far cry from feeling as if I must.


#7 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On June 1, 2006 @ 2:50 pm

The wide disparity of comments here points to one of the issues that needs to be resolved in the larger world: that of intellectual property rights.

As the world increasingly moves towards an information economy, we need to figure out how to value these intangible assets. For a long time, they were contained within tangible assets: you bought the book, you got the ideas, and the author got a royalty for his or her work.

The Internet, instant messaging, and other forms of electronic communication are breaking down that coupling. The ideas are just as valuable: but now it’s harder to value them and count them.

Any lawyers and innovative businesspeople, take note: this is one of the nuts that needs to be cracked if the information economy is going to continue to expand.

#8 Comment By dcat On June 2, 2006 @ 1:19 am


I would suggest that your institution receives substantial non-profit tax breaks from the American public and, presumably, had an obligation to further the public good.

I think that posting a syllabus on-line is not an unreasonble way to serve the public good.

Or, we could remove the tax breaks and allow colleges to keep everything under lock and key.

This question becomes more relevant when we think about the universities that operate hugely profitable commercial R&D ventures with the tax breaks available for non-profits. When Emory University sells a drug patent to a pharmaceutical company for $4 billion, I question whether the university really should have non-profit status.

#9 Comment By Derek On June 2, 2006 @ 10:47 am

My institution does receive tax breaks. I do not. I work on a contract for the UT system. I fulfill that contract and then some. The state, the government, and the university cannot simply start making claims on my intellectual property by saying that the institution receives tax breaks. By teaching my classes and teaching them well and by maintaining a growing reserach and writing profile I serve the public good quite well. (By the way, I am part of the American public too, so we could avoid the us versus them implications).

The removing tax breaks versus posting syllabi syllogism is just silly. The university receives tax breaks. So maybe it is in the public good to have every student’s record made public. I am working on three books, and I write in my office — maybe I should have to post my work as I go, even if it means the books will be far less viable because they become public property. Don’t tell anyone, but I placed an order on Amazon last night — I guess that should be made public. And since I used my credit card, I suppose that number ought to go into the public record. must I post my lectures? transcripts of class discussions? Etc. Etc.

If you think my university (I do not teach at Emory, so let’s stay relevant here) insufficiently serves the public good, that is an accusation for which you bear the burden to prove. Unless you have some evidence, let’s not pretend that my being unwilling to have my syllabus, which in many states is seen as a sort of contract between students and professors, posted on the web is indicative of my institution not serving the public good.

And why, may I ask, are you signing your post with “dcat,” are you really that devoid of imagination? It seems intellectually dishonest and misleading to do so. wait. scratch ‘seems.” It IS intellectually dishonest and misleading to do so.


#10 Comment By frank uible On June 2, 2006 @ 12:34 pm

AND your momma wears army boots!

#11 Comment By hwc On June 2, 2006 @ 12:49 pm

“If you think my university (I do not teach at Emory, so let’s stay relevant here) insufficiently serves the public good, that is an accusation for which you bear the burden to prove. ”

Actually, I think it is the burden of a non-profit charitable company to demonstrate that they serve the public interest and keep their tax-exempt status.

Sorry about the signature. I typed “dcat” in “from” field when I meant to address the comment to you.

This really isn’t a big deal to me. If you want to keep your syllabi confidential, that’s fine. However, you asked why you should be required to make them public and I was simply giving you one valid argument.

As an overall observation, I would like to see tax-exempt colleges and universities take their committment to serving the public interest a bit more seriously and that would include making it possible for the wider public to benefit from the excellent teaching, whether in the form of syllibi, reading lists, on-line lectures, etc.

#12 Comment By Derek On June 2, 2006 @ 2:11 pm

hwc — you are missing the point. the university does not write my syllabus. I do. It is not the university’s property. It is mine. I am not tax exempt. I pay pretty healthy income taxes on the money I receive based on my contract at my university. So the fact that the university is tax exempt means bupkes to my intellectual property rights because it is my syllabus in my class with my content and my work and if I leave here, the syllabus is mine, and not the university’s.

So again, the tax exempt argument is a nonstarter, though if the IRS wants to grant me tax exempt status, they and I can negotiate what of my work product thus becomes public record. And again — what about student records? I did not realize tax exemption meant giving up proprietorship. And I still have no idea what tax exemption really has to do with my syllabus.


#13 Comment By hwc On June 2, 2006 @ 3:43 pm


Not to be disrespectful or anything, but I really don’t care about your syllibi. I’m talking in a general sense about professors who are full-time tenured employees of tax-exempt non-profit organizations.

Generically speaking, I would be in favor of tax-exempt, non-profit colleges making more of their educational materials available on-line rather than less. Generically speaking, if universities prefer to treat educational materials as commercial trade secrets, then I would be in favor of giving them standard corporate tax-states. Generically speaking, I believe that universities have an obligation to the public interest.

#14 Comment By Alexander Woo On June 3, 2006 @ 4:17 am

Derek: I would guess that your university, and not you, actually holds copyright on your syllabi, since your syllabi are work which is part of your job at the university. Of course, this depends on the fine print of your contract, and, if the contract is not very explicit, on whom the lawyer is representing.

This issue of legal rights is separate from the issue of credit. If you publish a book or journal article, you usually transfer copyright to the publisher, but you are still cited as the author.

Everyone: I want to second what Guy wrote. As I understand it, “intellectual property” is a 20th century interpretation of an 18th century idea. People came up with the idea of encouraging the dissemination of ideas by granting a temporary monopoly on their publication or use. At first this was done on a case-by-case basis, with kings giving copyright to their court composer and so on. This was first thought of as a special favor to particular individuals, and later thought of as a general artifice to encourage inventions and artistic work. In all these cases, what was granted was not ownership of ideas, but the exclusive right for a period of time to control their dissemination.

It is only recently that our society thinks of ideas as somehow belonging to someone, and this is a notion I find suspect both philosophically and economically. My feeling is that the current system of “intellectual property” only makes sense in an industrial economy where most economic activity is production of goods, and that a new idea is needed for an information economy. Legal granting of monopoly power over something perfectly reproducible just doesn’t make any sense.

I want the Ken perspective on this, except i’m not sure he actually knows much about this subject.

#15 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On June 4, 2006 @ 4:56 pm


Thanks for calling. I am still reviewing my various responses to this thread (three at this point, one of which is stuck in a garbed memory dump), none of which directly addresses your questions, nor really fit well within the space constraints of ephBlog.

For a somewhat outdated view into my perspective on copyright, presuming you weren’t teasing me above, see Copyright 101. Sure wish I could revise comments; I typed RIAA instead of MPAA a few times there, to point out only one error.

The internal references to Pam and David’s syllabi in that discussion are one of the many logics that bind these discussions. So is the fact that, from years on the CEP and for many other reasons, I have been a collector of syllabi. I should put some of Pam and David’s online, and link these discussions– of course I can’t do that effectively, in a manner like that of John Walker’s The AutoDesk File, with a tool that doesn’t allow revision.

I also might again mention that the College has long required syllabi to be submitted, and that they are publically available in Sawyer. I’m not sure how far that tradition stretches back– as we do not have the records of the CEP online!– but they are filed as well. Given the effects of increased frictions of time, space and distance (as some geographers put it) on our communities, it would be a wonderful restoral of Williams’ community, if we could use electronic media to make such materials easily available again.

Thus, while I would claim that the CEP I sat on would presumably be positive to placing Williams syllabi online,– as well as its own minutes and records– via changes to the College’s regulations, I would also suggest that perhaps a more interim solution would be for some student to walk into Sawyer, open the binder of syllabi and drop them into a feed scanner, and publish them online, perhaps on Brewster’s Internet Archive?

Our office DocumentServer, at least, could get all the history of Williams’ syllabi online in an afternoon. Fait accompli, horse out the door.

You reach a little back from the American Founder’s vision pf copyright, and I am dim on the details before that period. Wikipedia tells us that copyright began as a government-granted right of exclusivity to a publisher, that the first modern attempt began in 1623, gives some history of the 1710 English Act and its numerous problems, and includes such assertions as “…included protections for consumers of printed work ensuring that publishers could not control their use after sale. It also limited the duration of such exclusive rights to 28 years, after which all works would pass into the public domain.”

Ah, to have much more of the source materials online and linked to Wikipedia and elsewhere– and to have backwards links, to see who else is exploring these issues, in a 3D interface…! And a Memex agent tracking my path, so I can come back to it later, following up on this…

(I came across a ScrapBook extension for Mozilla last week, which does a great part of that already… and I’m frustrated that I can’t make this particular aside a smaller font… OK, we’ll use blockquote). I’m also frustrated that I can’t simply drag&drop a link…

I will also pause to mention that this week’s developments in Iraq, seem to me to underscore the importance of teaching a broad section of coalition troops basic Arabic.

Derek’s syllabi are likely the property of UT unless UT has taken a very different path in regards to IP than most universities. I am also musing on Derek’s comments and position, and would like to hear more from him. In regards to Universities, authors’ and professors’ rights are often considered close to nil, for various reasons, a situation that hardly sits well with me.

As always, more later, here or in another thread. I have to return to drafting customer service policies, which, unlike my comments here, must be clear, concise, and short. And every time I look back at this to catch errors, it becomes twice as long!

#16 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On June 4, 2006 @ 5:14 pm

As for some of Derek’s commentary:

There are (unfortunately, I would say) plenty of University administrators who would say that a book written by a salaried professor, on a university computer or in a university office, is the IP of the University.

That is Western Kentucky University’s official policy, for instance, for what its worth. No one at Western is about to suggest posting revisions online, daily, but it is an interesting suggestion, is it not?

And for what it’s worth here, the University policies I report in my first paragraph seem to me so counterintuitive that I know of no example of such a policy being enforced in regards to a print publication. Perhaps I am simply ignorant; perhaps the real factor is the perceived worthlessness of IP in the humanities versus the sciences.

Again, quick comments. With all respect to Derek– whom I very confident teaches in the traditions of Williams, and is giving too much– I will certainly make the bald assertion that most of our Universities are not doing enough, nor much at all of what they could, to contribute to the Commonweal, and that no defence of that self-evident proposition is here necessary.

#17 Comment By Alexander Woo On June 4, 2006 @ 8:51 pm

To answer Ken’s implied question, my known data points (all musical) on 18th century European copyright is the following:

1) When Handel was considering leaving England, King George I granted him the exclusive right to publish his music in England as one fo the inducements for him to stay. (I believe this is in the 1720s.)
2) Mozart’s works were widely copied. Indeed, Mozart had some of his piano concertoes printed and sold just BEFORE he played them in public, because they would be copied (poorly) and printed by someone else afterwards. (1780s)
3) Brahms (mid-late 19th century) is considered the first composer to make a living from royalties. There was copyright in Europe before his time, but a copyright valid only in Austria but not in Bavaria wasn’t worth much.

#18 Comment By Derek On June 5, 2006 @ 6:40 pm

I can safely say that our books and articles are our copyright. There is no dispute on that that I know of from a legal vantage point — and if there is a question about copyright, it is almost certainly the function of a question between me and my publisher. In any case, on the one book I have written, the copyright is mine, and I have the papers to prove it. In any case, if ever there is a question, I will never write again from my campus computer!
If my syllabus is someone else’s copyright, I am putting a lot less work into it, but I still believe that when someone writes something that is their own work, the copyright redounds to them. I could be mistaken. But if I am wrong by the law as it stands, I’d be willing to be the test case to fight that like hell.
I still think that several of you are confusing a university’s responsibility with a professor’s — I may work for an institution that is nonprofit, but I am not nonprofit — my salary is taxed, and I can assure you, fully. I support taxation, so have no qualm with that, save when someone else, especially someone not in academia, starts telling me what I owe the general populace.


#19 Comment By frank uible On June 5, 2006 @ 7:23 pm

George Wallace is laughing hysterically in his grave! Most of you pointy-headed academics apparently aren’t at all sure where he exactly stands relative to the rights of ownership of the various forms of your day-to-day and other foreseeable work product. Hell, it only concerns money. You are the world’s most incompetent business people! Isn’t it common in academia for employees and employers to have formal, written contracts clearly settling all or the vast majority of ownership questions, or don’t you bother to read those contracts? Perhaps you need some intellectual property counseling before you blunder blindly along this path any further and become suddenly and sadly surprised. Don’t any of your professional organizations provide general guidance on this subject? If not, I suspect David might have a suggestion concerning a possible source of counseling.

#20 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On June 5, 2006 @ 10:24 pm

As a general rule, an employer is considered the author of anything written by an employee within the scope of his or her employment. The resulting works are “work made for hire.” As an IT analyst, I write reports for Burton Group — so Burton Group owns the copyright to my reports. A commissioned work also falls into this category: if MIT Press commissions a book, it typically owns the copyright.

Since a syllabus is part of the work of a college professor, I’m assuming Williams owns the copyright to it. However, general rules are made to be broken, and different courts have ruled differently on this subject. Because of this, the rules that apply are often laid out in the contract between the employer and employee.

For the ins and outs of the subtleties, check out William Strong’s The Copyright Book.

#21 Comment By Derek On June 6, 2006 @ 11:43 am

Look, I am going to try to write as slowly as possible so as not to confuse — when professors write books and articles, the copyright is either theirs or the publishers. I am not speculating about this — this is fact.

Furthermore, lectures are also ours. Even if we write them as professors for the purpose of teaching a class.

I realize it was probably meant tongue in cheek (and citing Wallace implies as much), but nothing pisses me off more than “pointy headed academic” comments. The odds are, this “pointy headed academic” can kick your ass, so I’m not going to be lumped in with fey absent-minded professor-types, nor am i about to sit idly by and read any vague and stupid “real world” inanities. So let’s get rid of the ad hominem cliches about what professors are or are not.

While in business — say. IT, these things are settled, I’m not certain if there is any case law on syllabi or lectures or anything like that. We don’t know what the law is. But as a general rule, professors are different kinds of employees, and as a result our work product is ours. If not, then please show me one academic book among the tens of thousands that have been written and applied toward tenure or promotion that is not the property of the professor or publisher. Just one. And then show me one case — just one — of a syllabus being ruled as property of a college or university. Meanwhile, lots of professors publish their course assignments, syllabi, and other ephemera from their teaching in places such as the OAH Magazine of History. In fact, I published something in a journmal a couple of years ago that included a syllabus, and I have the copyright, so in terms of copyright law, I am assuming that actually owning the copyright would give me an advantage over my university in any dispute.

So again, until this is proven, I am going to fight like hell to maintain the property that I write and develop, and I can assure you that if ever it is determined that my syllabi are property of the university, my syllabu will suddenly become a lot less detailed and good, and a lot more that the syllabus conveys will have to go across verbally.


#22 Comment By frank uible On June 6, 2006 @ 2:04 pm

Derek: Internet tough guy, it is acknowledged that you hold championship title to the claim that you can kick the ass of a 71 year old disabled.

#23 Comment By Guy Creese ’75 On June 6, 2006 @ 5:26 pm

The Copyright Management Center of Indiana University has a sample contract for universities to use. One section of it states, “The parties to this Agreement anticipate that the Course Materials may be “instructional materials” as defined in the IP Policy, and thus most rights of use will reside with the Instructor; in the alternative, the Course Materials may be “institutional works” as defined in the IP Policy, and thus most rights of use will reside with IU.*”

This would contradict Derek’s statement that “the work product is ours.” In most cases it is (course work), but the university could commission a study or report that would become the university’s property. That’s why I said in an earlier post that these subtleties are often dealt with in a contract between the university and the professor.

FYI, the Copyright Center is at http://www.copyright.iupui.edu/.

#24 Comment By Ken Thomas ’93 On June 6, 2006 @ 5:47 pm


Briefly: as an occasionally point(ty)-head academic, I believe I understand and strongly sympathize with part of your position.

As noted in my reply to Alex, I’ve written several drafts of replies to this thread. The second one contained four or five paragraphs of analysis of some of the ins-and-outs of your situation. It was hardly exhaustive– I could extend that section to a chapter– and IANAL.

Guy’s representation is generally correct, and also represents the situation in the business world.

Practically, most academics can write and publish and claim copyright on a work without problem. However, generally, the University has a written IP policy that states such works indeed belong to the University. I look forward to reviewing UT’s at some point, and if you would find and forward, it would make my life easier. As universities begin to more seriously consider questions of their IP, and view it as a “portfolio” to be managed and developed in the same way businesses do, there are many battles brewing here. If you’d like to be a part, more’s the merrier. Perhaps I should be studying for the bar…

This is entirely about money, and there’s no going back. Universities, being naturally poor, are usually fierce and ruthless– not to mention ineffective– negotiators, and they generally squeeze as hard as they can, even when this is against their interest.

Somewhere in my second or third reply, I almost wrote that if someone wanted to post your syllabi online at the InterNet Archive, Brewster and Lawrence might be in putting up a few millions to make a test case out of you :). I deleted that as inappropriate, … but it is worth considering.

I also did some wiffle-waffing about whether syllabi are ever subject to copyright, but decided that for purposes of argument, they are.

Regardless of the above, I believe Frank’s point is that if you simply assume that your books are truly yours, you may want to give some consideration that, if there were dollars involved, the University might come back at you and assert a copyright over your product. And ask you to pay them your royalties received.

For the product of so-called “superstars” of the popularity of Stephen Jay Gould, this will happen one day. Assuming that Stephen did not have a clear contract assigning him rights, it is entirely conceivable that Harvard could assert rights versus his estate, and demand compensation.

Again, that does not sit well with me, and at the moment I have no idea how it would sit with Brewster, much less Lessig, but I suspect they would have a similar (and different, and diverse) series of concerns.

As would Judges like Patel or Wilson… it is truly beautiful to the diversity of approaches, and the development, along these issues, especially at the micro-level of the courtroom (I wish I could have sat in Wilson’s as I did in Patel’s).

And again, this is entirely about money, and there’s no going back. But I believe there are new and creative ways to make this a more profitable era, rather than to fight over the ownership a horse already out the stable door…

Again, off the top of my head.

#25 Comment By Alexander Woo On June 6, 2006 @ 7:21 pm


Papers from the Copyright Office are not in fact legal proof that you own the copyright; they are only certifications by the Copyright Office that they received a copy of the work along with forms claiming you are the holder of copyright.
Unlike the Patent Office, which actually makes a (preliminary) determination of whether a filer has a legally legitimate claim to the patent, the Copyright Office does no such thing; it simply serves as a date stamp.