Ownership and The Syllabus

There are major changes going on in education lately. I’m hearing it from all corners of the spectrum: students, professors, administrators and the internet at large. The issue is the concept of ownership. In particular is the issue of ownership of ideas. I’ve titled this post “Ownership and The Syllabus” because I was recently reminded of this issue when another instructor made a comment about some of the initiatives happening at many universities. The issue at hand was the syllabus and its status as a public/open rather than private/restricted-access document. Housed within this comment are some overarching principles and frustrations I’ve had as a student in the past.

One of the issues I’ve had in the past (and continue to have in the present) is the fact that many professors outright refuse to provide students with a digital version of their syllabus. The logic, housed in the issue of ownership, is that digital copies are, well, copies! As such, these professors are protecting what they, perhaps correctly, view as their intellectual property. They toiled over the creation of this document, the structure of the course, the books included, the readings and writings assigned, and don’t want someone else taking their syllabus and teaching their course. This is difficult for me to stomache (although I sympathize with the anxiety).

Education itself is based on teachers giving students information (which typically manifests itself in the form of an idea). In the extreme there have been cases of teachers laying claims of intellectual property even to the notes students write down from class. I’ve also heard tales of graduate students refusing to participate in discussion for fear of their ideas being plagiarized. In an attempt to keep this post not overly long (for I’ll surely write about this topic in more depth later) I’ll just say that this stance of having an “ownership” of ideas seems flawed (at least to me) when considered in the context of education. As such, my students receive digital copies… and they don’t even know how lucky they are.

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