The Open Syllabus Project Visualizes the 1,000,000+ Books Most Frequently Assigned in College Courses

The Prince, The Can­ter­bury Tales, The Com­mu­nist Man­i­festo, The Souls of Black FolkThe Ele­ments of Style: we’ve read all these, of course. Or at least we’ve read most of them (one or two for sure), if our ever-dim­mer mem­o­ries of high school or col­lege are to be trust­ed. But we can rest assured that stu­dents are read­ing — or in any case, being assigned — these very same works today, thanks to the Open Syl­labus project, which as of this writ­ing has assem­bled a data­base of 7,292,573 dif­fer­ent col­lege course syl­labi. Great­ly expand­ed since we pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured it here on Open Cul­ture, its “Galaxy” now visu­al­izes the 1,138,841 most fre­quent­ly assigned texts in that data­base, pre­sent­ing them in a Google Maps-like inter­face for your intel­lec­tu­al explo­ration.

If you click on the search win­dow in the upper-left cor­ner of that inter­face, a scrol­lable rank­ing of the top 100 most fre­quent­ly assigned texts opens imme­di­ate­ly below. Num­ber one, appear­ing on more than 15,000 of the syl­labi col­lect­ed so far, is Strunk and White’s clas­sic writ­ing-style guide.

Click on its title and you’ll find your­self in its cor­ner of the map, and you’ll see high­light­ed oth­er pop­u­lar read­ings that tend to be assigned togeth­er with it: Diana Hack­er’s A Writer’s Ref­er­ence (at the moment the sec­ond-most assigned text), Aris­totle’s Rhetoric, Mar­tin Luther King Jr.‘s “Let­ter from the Birm­ing­ham Jail,” Jür­gen Haber­mas’ The Struc­tur­al Trans­for­ma­tion of the Pub­lic Sphere.

Michel Fou­cault holds by some mea­sures the record for the great­est num­ber of cita­tions in the human­i­ties. If you’ve read only one of his books, you’ve prob­a­bly read Dis­ci­pline and Pun­ish, his 1975 study of the penal sys­tem — and cur­rent hold­er of six­teenth place on the Open Syl­labus rank­ings. But zoom in on it and you’ll find plen­ty of rel­e­vant books and arti­cles you might not have read: Alan Elsner’s Gates of Injus­tice, William Ian Miller’s The Anato­my of Dis­gustSoledad Broth­er: The Prison Let­ters of George Jack­son. Sim­i­lar­ly, an excur­sion in the neigh­bor­hood of Bene­dict Ander­son’s Imag­ined Com­mu­ni­ties brings encoun­ters with oth­er inves­ti­ga­tions of coun­try and cit­i­zen­ship like Ernest Renan’s What Is a Nation? and Dun­can S.A. Bel­l’s Myth­scapes: Mem­o­ry, Mythol­o­gy, and Nation­al Iden­ti­ty.

In every sense, the results to be found in the Open Syl­labus Galaxy are more inter­est­ing than those offered up by the stan­dard you-may-also-like algo­rithms. Back in col­lege you may have enjoyed, say, Edward Said’s Ori­en­tal­ism, but the range of texts that could accom­pa­ny it would have been lim­it­ed by the theme of the class and the intent of your instruc­tor. Here you’ll find Noam Chom­sky’s Failed States on one side, John R. Bowen’s Why the French Don’t Like Head­scarves on anoth­er, Hans Wehr’s Dic­tio­nary of Mod­ern Writ­ten Ara­bic on anoth­er, and even Mes­sages to the World: The State­ments of Osama bin Laden on anoth­er still. If we want to under­stand a sub­ject, after all, we must read not just about it but around it. In col­lege or else­where, you might well have heard that idea; here, you can see it. Enter the Open Syl­labus Galaxy here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Fos­ter Wallace’s 1994 Syl­labus: How to Teach Seri­ous Lit­er­a­ture with Light­weight Books

W.H. Auden’s 1941 Lit­er­a­ture Syl­labus Asks Stu­dents to Read 32 Great Works, Cov­er­ing 6000 Pages

Lyn­da Barry’s Won­der­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Syl­labus & Home­work Assign­ments from Her UW-Madi­son Class, “The Unthink­able Mind”

Don­ald Barthelme’s Syl­labus High­lights 81 Books Essen­tial for a Lit­er­ary Edu­ca­tion

Junot Díaz’s Syl­labi for His MIT Writ­ing Class­es, and the Nov­els on His Read­ing List

“Call­ing Bull­shit”: See the Syl­labus for a Col­lege Course Designed to Iden­ti­fy & Com­bat Bull­shit

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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