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August 23, 2017

New Open Syllabi Feature to Help Students Choose Classes

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As students return to campus and reconsider the classes they signed up for during pre-enroll, they may notice some added information on the course roster that may help them decide if a class is right for them: the syllabus.

Class instructors are now able to upload their syllabi onto Cornell’s online course roster, allowing students to view them before the first week of classes. This feature will help students during the add-drop period this year and during pre-enroll in the future.

The change, which was brought about by a Student Assembly resolution, went live on the course roster website in July.

While instructors are not obligated to upload their syllabi, many professors said the process is easy and straightforward. An average of around 20 percent of undergraduate classes in each department already have a syllabus available.

The change was inspired by the amount of information students receive at other Ivy League schools before signing up for classes, said Gabe Kaufman ’18, one of the sponsors of the resolution that eventually led to the change.

At Brown University, data are collected by a student-run organization called The Critical Review, which publishes information on courses such as the difficulty of the course, the amount of time it required per week and other aspects based on student surveys.

The idea to do something similar at Cornell was originally proposed in the 2014-15 academic year but was quickly shot down by then Cornell President David Skorton, said Kaufman.

Since then, a Student Assembly task force reviewed the issue and came up with the idea for professors to upload their syllabi. Since most classes already have syllabi, this change meant that no new information needs to be gathered.

Although the original idea was to make it mandatory for professors to upload them, that was also rejected.

However many professors have voluntarily uploaded their syllabi. Prof. Barbara Correll, English, said it allowed her to “be as inviting as possible and as open as possible about the work load” in her course on Shakespeare.

Other professors echoed Correll’s sentiment and added that the process was quick and took only a few seconds.

But others have still not uploaded their syllabi for a variety of reasons. One professor pointed out that when teaching courses that include sensitive topics such as race, they may not want to invite criticism by posting their syllabus for the entire world to see. Other professors said they just have not gotten around to it yet or that students have not asked to have them published.

The change may have a minimal impact in the short run. Unavailable during pre-enroll for the current semester, it will only be helpful to students during the add-drop session.

But Kaufman said that, although the change may not be groundbreaking, it is still important.

“I’m not changing anyone’s life here,” he said. “This isn’t going to be huge, but it’s a bunch of little things. And so I feel like it has the potential to make everyone’s lives just a little bit easier, which I think is something we all deserve.”