History Syllabus Wiki: A Query

We need your feedback!  The American Historical Association is considering the possibility of creating a “History Syllabus Wiki.”  This new wiki would be a place where history teachers could come in and submit and tweak syllabi for different history courses.

This initiative is meant to provide history teachers with a reliable and valuable source to consult for ideas on how to get started with a new course; revamp a course; or just to get a sense of which books, movies, and assignments seem appropriate for a specific course level (i.e. survey, upper level, or graduate colloquium).  This type of resource could be particularly beneficial for historians and teachers who are at the beginning of their academic careers or for professors at all levels who are invited (or forced) to teach a new course in their departments.

In a recent search on the web, we could find no wiki that has syllabi for a specific discipline such as history.  There are, however, other sources for syllabi.  Many universities have Syllabus Databases, especially those with Centers for Teaching Excellence, which very often provide access only to syllabi used on that campus. Quite often these are only open to members of the university community, thus making it difficult for outside users to search for options or ideas on how to teach a specific course. Moreover, most of the material that these databases provide tends to revolve around how to create a syllabus, offering online guides that tend to emphasize student-centered learning.

Many resources online offer individual lesson plans for use in the classroom (see lesson plan resources highlighted on the AHA blog).  An excellent example is the History & Social Studies section of the EDSITEment web site. The lesson plans offered here are highly detailed and planned out, offering links to resources on many other web sites.  These lesson plans could be even better utilized if worked into a syllabus and made available through a syllabus wiki.

A few academic organizations offer fairly extensive syllabi in the discipline they represent.  Two, in particular, stand out: the databases of the American Academy of Religion and of the American Political Science Association.  These seem like the kind of discipline-centered syllabi sites that could be usefully constructed here.

There are also a few research engines for syllabi, but they have general research criteria, making it difficult to search syllabi by topic, area, or time period. Unfortunately, one of the best resources for finding syllabiin the discipline, the Center for History and New Media’s Syllabus Finder, has been disabled by a change in the Google API.

It was also difficult to assess to what extent these tools are successful.  Judging from the number of institutions (from research universities to community colleges) that offer databases and other materials related to the creation of syllabi, they are in pretty high demand.  It also appeared that more than one discipline is engaged in a debate to determine what a good syllabus is and that this debate has intensified in the last decade.

Because of the collaborative nature of the this type of technology, the wiki would not only represent an excellent addition to the already existing database and search engines, but it could become a forum in which users would be able to comment, give feedback, make suggestions, and ask questions about the syllabi posted there.

We would love to know your opinion about this idea and to hear your suggestions about what sort of categories or prompts might be useful in this type of endeavor. Feel free to leave your comments here or to send your thoughts and suggestions to Robert Townsend. Let us know what you think!

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  1. Jonathan Dresner

    I’m not sure how much use a wiki would be at this point. There is, as you note, a lot out there already, though an organized approach would be helpful: something which would allow you to see syllabi which used your prefered text, for example. The challenge for me has always been in creating syllabi in teaching fields outside of my speciality, but that’s more a matter of finding readings which a good bibliography (or blog-request) is usually enough to get started on.

  2. Cassie Kilroy Thompson

    As someone who has railed against atrocious syllabi from time to time (not specific to History, however), I would welcome the wiki approach to best practices for syllabi in general, with offsite links to various content area syllabi wikis. Perhaps the general wiki could be supported by the AAUP or another higher education association, and each content area association could host a wiki linked to the best general practices effort. I recognize the important differences that subject matter can make in both the structure and content of a syllabus, having been in the fields of psychology and statistics, and now as a returning graduate student in History. As a mother of four students who are afraid to show me their syllabi for fear that I will edit them and return them marked up to their instructors, I can also tell you that to this day, some k-12 teachers get it and others don’t use the syllabus as well. I am currently working in Student Support Services at my university, with college students who have documented disabilities, and the syllabi of many instructors with whom my students are studying (some new, some not so new!) need to be rewritten to make them useful to the students, and in some cases, to make their syllabi function better for the instructors’ needs as well. On a practical note, at AHA I can envision a list of History Course/level syllabi wikis, with a moderator assigned to each. In my view, each wiki would need to be linked both to best practice examples (static) as well as an archive of iterations (dynamic) for each such History Course Syllabus. Understanding why an experienced instructor considers certain elements essential or distracting or optional will assist many of us in crafting the most effective tools. Just my 2 cents, unadjusted for inflation….

  3. Shane Landrum

    I’d welcome some kind of online database of syllabi, though I think a wiki is probably too loosely-structured to capture the search criteria I’d want to use. (“Show me all syllabi for the ‘US history after the Civil War’ survey-level course designed to be taught at community colleges in the US.”) Institution type, course level, and geographic/topical focus would be the three handiest ways to search. I’d also want to see some commenting features enabled so that a syllabus page can be a forum for two-way communication with its author about their choices and possible revisions for future versions.

    I’d also love to see AHA publish something online about syllabus design and standards for college-level courses.

  4. Rebecca Spang

    I don’t think a wiki is necessary at this point. There are many ways of finding syllabi, though it’s very unfortunate that the CHNM’s tool is no longer operational. A wiki does make it possible to alter syllabi, but it seems to me that a syllabus is so site specific—what works for students in a ten-week quarter class might not work for a fifteen-week semester; some depts have prerequisites, others do not, etc. etc.—that it could be more chaotic than helpful. If the AHA can somehow support efforts to restore the Syllabus Finder to operationality, that would be more useful.

  5. E. Martin

    For someone just beginning to teach, the idea of “one-stop shopping” to compare syllabi and find new ideas sounds marvelous.

  6. Marc Becker

    My impression, though I may be wrong, is that few professors would take the time to edit or tweak someone else’s syllabus online. More helpful, in my experience, is a database of syllabi.

    Specifically on Latin America, we have a Conference on Latin America (CLAH) / H-Latam syllabi project at http://clah.h-net.org/?page_id=293, tho unfortunately a lot of those links are broken right now because of transferring the site to a new system, and the maddening thing about WordPress is that it is very labor intensive to fix these. Anyone have the time and interest to fix them for me?

  7. Debbie Thor

    Any tool which would help improve the quality of the syllabus would be a welcome addition. I have seen so many poor representations of such. I also agree that it would be valuable to a new educator to see what experienced or master teachers produce in the way of a syllabus. I know I would have certainly appreciated such a site.

  8. Pauline Maier

    I think a resource center for syllabi would be useful, even for experienced teachers interested in seeing what readings other, younger scholars have found workable in the classroom. Too much on the web, so far as I can see, is outdated or depends overmuch on textbooks alone. A greater range of syllabi, from different kinds of institutions, could be very helpful in updating courses.