New database identifies higher ed's most-assigned books

Could provide a new way to gauge scholarly influence

Sam Bernstein, staff writer

A first-of-its-kind database reveals the most popular books taught in college, Joe Karaganis and David McClure report for the New York Times' "Gray Matter." Did your favorites make the list?

While syllabuses are arguably the cornerstone of academic life, they have not been archived and studied in a systematic way—until now.

Working with the Open Syllabus Project, Karaganis and McClure collected more than a million syllabuses from university websites over the past two years. Key pieces of information from the documents, such as their date, their schools, and texts that they assign, were extracted and put into an online database called Open Syllabus Explorer.

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Karaganis and McClure hope the syllabus database can become a valuable tool to "enable people to learn new things about teaching, publishing, and intellectual history." For example, the database could give academics a better sense of how many people are reading their articles or measure the impact of certain research on a field of study.

The top ten and why they're important

At minimum, the database provides a window into what books instructors assign most often. They tend to be texts that are used in a variety of fields or foundational, entry-level courses. For example, "The Communist Manifesto" often appears on syllabuses from history, political science, and sociology—"for those wondering" why it ranks so high, Karaganis and McClure point out.

Here are the top ten books, along with thoughts on what may have earned them a spot on the list.

1. "The Elements of Style," by William Strunk Jr.: The canonical guide to writing well, it includes tips like "Omit needless words." No more explanation necessary.

2. "The Republic," by Plato: "The object of education is to teach us to love what is beautiful," Plato wrote. No word on how he felt about performance-based funding.  

3. "The Communist Manifesto," by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: "A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism," Marx and Engels wrote. The rest is history.

4. "Biology," by Neil A. Campbell: The lone science text on the list, this is one of the most successful biology textbooks ever written.

5. "Frankenstein," by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley: Written by the only female author in the top ten, Shelly's masterpiece probably comes as a surprise to many students who only know Frankenstein from his pop-culture spinoffs. Nothing beats the original, though.

6. "Nicomachean Ethics," by Aristotle: An examination of happiness, Aristotle's "Nicomachean Ethics" is essential—if occasionally dense—reading.

7. "Leviathan," by Thomas Hobbes: One of the founding texts of political science, "Leviathan" is also full of practical advice—if you look hard enough. For instance, "Hell is truth seen too late" is a powerful argument for proactive academic advising.

8. "The Prince," by Niccolò Machiavelli: A book so misunderstood, it scares many writers from saying anything about it at all.  

9. "Oedipus," by Sophocles: A brisk 80 pages or so, some students probably breathe a sigh of relief when they pick up "Oedipus" at the bookstore. But Sophocles' play raises big questions that are bound to linger long after students sell the book at the end of the term.  

10. "The Odyssey," by Homer: Expect a panic in your classics department if this ever falls out of the top ten. Homer's epic story is interpreted by some as an allegory for every person's journey through life. "Sleep, delicious and profound, the very counterfeit of death," is certainly something many college students can identify with (Karganis/McClure, "Gray Matter," New York Times, 1/22).

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