Why We Don’t Collect Syllabi (And Tips on How to Find them Anyway)

The UNC University Archives does not collect syllabi or reading lists from each course taught at UNC-Chapel Hill. Because this question comes up pretty often, I wanted to share more information about our process for determining what to collect and talk about cases where we make exceptions.

Records Schedule
In deciding which official UNC records to collect, we are guided by the General Records Retention and Disposition Schedule, which describes in detail the types of records created by the university and outlines rules stating which should be kept, and for how long. The records schedule was developed with the State Archives of North Carolina, which oversees official records statewide. Here’s what the schedule says about syllabi, in the section on curriculum and instruction records:

2.11 Syllabi and Outlines Records
Records (including reference copies) documenting each course taught by the unit. This series may include but is not limited to: draft and final copies of course syllabi and outlines, and related documentation and correspondence.

Disposition Instructions: Destroy in office when reference value ends.

This means, simply, that syllabi should be kept only for as long as they’re useful in the office. That’s clear enough, but it does pose a dilemma: part of our job is documenting the history of the university, and detailed information about what is taught in specific classes is important to understanding the evolving curriculum at UNC.

Finding Historic Syllabi from UNC
Syllabi, and materials related to the development of the academic curriculum at UNC, do show up in University Archives in administrative and departmental records, and also in faculty papers in the Archives and the Southern Historical Collection. A finding aid search reveals many collections with syllabi from UNC faculty and even more containing files on course offerings and curricula. Syllabi may also appear on websites that are collected as part of the UNC University Archives Web Archives.

Many UNC academic departments offer sample syllabi online, including some from previous years (we found examples from History, Biology, and Social Work).

Changes at UNC-Chapel Hill
In 2012, the UNC-Chapel Hill Faculty Council approved a resolution requiring standard elements in each syllabus and requiring that these be maintained for at least four years. This decision was driven by a desire for increased accountability and transparency regarding courses offered at the university. There are not currently any plans to retain these syllabi beyond the four year period mentioned in the resolution, unless a department decides that the syllabi would still be useful to keep on file.

Nationwide Efforts to Collect Syllabi
There have been several projects aimed at collecting and analyzing information from college course reading lists nationwide. The largest current effort that I’m aware of is the Open Syllabus Project from Columbia University. Rather than presenting the content of individual syllabi, the website’s “Syllabus Explorer” aggregates assigned readings from submitted syllabi and enables users to view trends in texts used for college classes. The book appearing most frequently in the submitted syllabi is The Elements of Style, followed by Plato’s Republic and The Communist Manifesto.

The Open Syllabus project appears to have received many syllabi from UNC-Chapel Hill instructors. Elements of Style tops the list of most frequently assigned readings for UNC classes represented in the database, followed by SILS Dean Gary Marchionini’s book Information Seeking in Electronic Environments. This suggests that the library science courses are over-represented in the syllabi submitted from UNC. Either that or Marchionini’s work has crossed over into classic literature and is now being studied in English classes. We’d need more data to say for sure.

Syllabi and Intellectual Property
For this blog post, I’ve just focused on collection and preservation. There is a larger and more complicated debate around the issue of syllabi as intellectual property. This has played out most recently in Missouri where a legislative demand for transparency is countered with a desire among some faculty to protect their intellectual property. Any effort to collect and widely distribute the content of individual syllabi would have to address this issue.

 

 

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