David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
It All Makes Sense

July 28, 2019

Last week I purchased a concert t-shirt upon seeing my favorite band James in Royal Oak, Michigan.  The shirt says "It All Makes Sense On LSD," although the words are partly obscured by pictures of flowers, much like the lyric sheet to James' incredible latest cd, "Living In Extraordinary Times." I'm not sure what to make of the actual LSD statement, as it is unlikely an endorsement of LSD, but more a statement on how to make sense of the extraordinary times in which we live.

Then today I saw the Open Syllabus Project, or more specifically its "galaxy visualization tool," and I am thinking my shirt references this galaxy. (You can see it at the top of the article linked to the Open Syllabus Project," or more interactively here.) (Please click the link at least briefly, or it won't make sense, drugs or no drugs.) Beyond the pretty dots and the nightsky-ish surface map lies some pretty heady stuff.

The map captures how many syllabi, out of a fairly large database, use certain textbooks.  They are somehow linked by common usage across disciplines.  It makes sense . . . until you start looking at the detail of what appears to be a giant landmass of academia.

For instance, on a tiny island down by Antarctica exists Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, used on 396 syllabi within the database. It's not entirely clear why Didion (or her discipline) is destined to habitation so far in the southern hemisphere, cut off from every other subject or textbook.  I guess "magical thinking" can't get you back to the mainland?

Equally baffling is a small island chain to the east of Didion, housing both the Ibragimovs' (two of them apparently) A Practical Course In Differential Equations and Mathematical Modeling: Classical And New Methods, Non-Linear Mathematical Models, Symmetry and Invariance Principles and Young-Mee Choo's Integrated Korean: Intermediate. The former is miles southwest from the math syllabi; in fact, if our land mass was the world, math's home is, ironically, where Korea would be once continental drift separates our map's land masses.  I like to believe the Ibragimovs were banished to this leper colony so far south because their title is such a mouthful, especially since Jon Rogawski's elegantly titled Calculus sits firmly in the world of math.

Smack dab in the middle of this universe is writing, which pleases me.  Smack dab in the middle of the writing mass is one of the most widely used textbooks across academia: Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, used on 11,472 of the archived syllabi apparently. I wish I could say S&W show up for their outstanding recommendations, but I wonder if they win by brevity too: it's a thin book retailing at barely $10.  No professor has ever felt guilty assigning The Elements of Style.

Since the map generates via connections, I can't quite understand (without the LSD) why Literature is so far off in the northwest from Writing. Literature's peninsula, as if the Aleutian Islands, dots the edges of its landmass with Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, Maurice Sendak's Where The Wild Things Are, and Sneetches and Other Stories by Dr. Seuss. Clearly children's literature hasn't quite made the mainland. Hey, at least they aren't music, hanging out there in the ocean like the Marshall Islands. John Cage's Silence, appearing on 346 syllabi, probably has a lot of space for silence out there in the middle of nowhere.

The sciences seem to form a fascinating chain on the far eastern border of the map, a digital Great Wall of Scientific Method: Starting from the top, Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Engineering form this curved border, even though the practical uses of some of those subjects (medicine and nursing) exist far to the southwest. Indications of subject snobbery, perhaps?

It really is a pretty fascinating map, even without the LSD.  But as the creators admit, it still has limitations (capturing only 5% of English-language curriculum over a decade). . . but also possibilities for value way beyond what's fathomed today.  One of the limitations is in its scope.  I can search by Southwestern Michigan College and find they include 32 syllabi, 23 with citations. I am not sure of the distinction between the 32 and the 23, especially since I count the inclusion of a mere 20 syllabi. Not only are they a far cry from the several hundred syllabi we have at any point in a semester, their numbers are inconsistent, and appear to go back to 2014. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, I can't search by our college (by any college) but only by the textbooks. 

Still, it's o.k.  There's something endlessly fascinating about this map, as if "stars blink out directions/through cloud formations/some kind of code."*  (Coding Style And Good Computing Practices by Jonathan Nagler can be found, via 50 syllabi, smack dab on the southeastern Statistics coast, about halfway between Computer Science and Research Methods.)

*James. "Hope To Sleep." Living In Extraordinary Times. 2018

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