Is it okay to request syllabi for my own enrichment?
March 13, 2017 3:37 PM   Subscribe

I have hobbies/interests of an intellectual nature, and every so often I find information about a university course that addresses those interests (particularly from my alma mater). Would it be annoying or in any way gauche to send the professor an email requesting a copy of the syllabus so I can seek out the readings myself and read them in my free time? I have no idea how this is perceived in academia and don't want to step on any toes.
posted by delight to Education (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I would definitely check to make sure that the course didn't already have a web page of some sort. If there is a web page, there is almost certainly a syllabus there.
posted by that girl at 3:49 PM on March 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Many professors post (or must post) their syllabi online, so you can always try the old Google first. Generally speaking, you'll find a wide variety of opinions from faculty about the sanctity of their syllabi--some will not share them, ever, while others post 'em for free on the internet anyway. I think that a brief and polite email (especially let them know if you're an alum of the institution!) won't be amiss--though I'd encourage you to not ask any particular professor for more than one, and don't take it personally if they either say no or don't get back to you. I sometimes ignore "random" emails just in case it's actually from a conservative watchlist, or something, and I don't need that kind of hassle in my life....
posted by TwoStride at 3:50 PM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Sorry, I should have mentioned -- I would only do this if I have exhausted the public online resources for the class.
posted by delight at 3:51 PM on March 13, 2017

There are all sorts of reasons that people write to instructors to get a copy of a course syllabus so I wouldn't worry about it, or worry that the instructor would think the request is weird.

To get credit for prior learning I had to find classes that fit my learning experience and then write about how my life experiences taught me the material from the syllabus. When I was doing this I emailed half a dozen instructors at different institutions and they all graciously sent me a copy of the syllabus with no further questions:
posted by MadMadam at 3:57 PM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Professors also send "send me your syllabus" e-mails all the time, so we won't find it particularly surprising to receive one, although our willingness to respond will vary.

I would estimate that I would send a syllabus to somebody who identified themselves as an alum of the school I teach at 95% of the time--life-long learning is exactly what I want to be promoting!

If you didn't identify yourself as an alum, this might drop down to about 75%, but that's just because I am untenured and anxious about the possibility of getting on a conservative watchlist.
posted by besonders at 4:22 PM on March 13, 2017 [6 favorites]

Wouldn't bother me - I'm a Spanish Instructor.
posted by chainsofreedom at 5:00 PM on March 13, 2017

It is not annoying or in any way gauche to ask, as long as you strongly convey your request as a much appreciated favor and not an expectation. There are all sorts of really good reasons that I might hesitate to send out a syllabus from a) it's not ready yet, to b) I'm not sure what your motivation is, to c) this could be opening up a door to a conversation with someone I don't know that I probably don't have time for. Sometimes people outside academia approach us with expectations of our roles as public servants (whether or not we're at public institutions) that are bigger than we can deliver. I am much more generous with my public-spirited-ness when it is clear that the askee understands that such extra stuff really is extra to my job and that they won't take advantage.

So, tldr: not gauche to ask. very gauche to expect. still maybe 50-50 in bad weeks that I will follow up, but don't take it personally.
posted by dness2 at 5:18 PM on March 13, 2017 [8 favorites]

I would happily send out a syllabus on request, but 99% of the time, it's not ready until like the week before classes start. And by the time a term ends, I am usually unhappy with at least some of it, and want to revise it. Depending on how unhappy I am with how the course went, I might be reluctant to send it out without doing that revision first (which again, won't happen until a week before I next teach it). So your best chance of getting a copy would be sometime in the first third of the academic semester, when it's ready to go, I still have the file bookmarked, and I'm not yet disillusioned (but preferably not in the very first week of classes when I am overwhelmed with emails from the actual students in the class and might end up delaying replying to yours and then forgetting about it.)

Also, technically, at least in some universities I've taught in, syllabi remain the IP of the university, not me personally, so it's possible that might put some people off sharing them too widely (especially if they think you might be planning to use them to teach from yourself.) It wouldn't bother me, though.
posted by lollusc at 5:42 PM on March 13, 2017 [4 favorites]

besonders: because I am untenured and anxious about the possibility of getting on a conservative watchlist

Wow. I got your first reason, but your second reason blew my mind. But, of course.

Being a former academic, I suspect the responses may vary quite widely between disciplines. I would be grateful if they shared their syllabus with you, but that's the most I'd expect (like, imposing beyond only asking for a copy of the syllabus would be gauche. Aside from a 'thanks' I would never initiate further contact).
posted by porpoise at 5:47 PM on March 13, 2017

It's unlikely to impact your specific situation but be aware that a few months ago there were reports of right-wing folks asking faculty for syllabi of classes that they presumably intended to criticize or highlight in some fashion. That may have made some faculty, especially those in the social sciences or humanities who studies are typically lambasted by the right (e.g., gender studies, poverty studies, ethnic identity work) reluctant to share syllabi with strangers especially if those strangers don't have .edu e-mail addresses.
posted by ElKevbo at 5:50 PM on March 13, 2017 [3 favorites]

One data point: I'd be happy to share a syllabus if asked, and would not be at all annoyed. I'd in fact kind of consider it part of my function as an academic to direct another person interested in the subject to suitable resources if possible. lollusc's caveats are echoed, although I also wouldn't worry about the IP angle.

I'm in math, so unable to advise about what's gauche ;-)
posted by busted_crayons at 5:50 PM on March 13, 2017

I think you'd perhaps have a higher success rate - if you really only want the readings - to just ask for reading recommendations related to XXX topic. I say this in part because my own syllabi will frequently mention readings without actually listing what they are (I'm an art professor and don't require textbooks; I put readings up on our digital learning platform and will change/update them to remain relevant) and because I think more professors will feel comfortable sharing reading recs than syllabi.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:32 PM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

because I think more professors will feel comfortable sharing reading recs than syllabi.

Yeah, you can also look on the college bookstore's website to see what the required texts are!
posted by listen, lady at 8:49 PM on March 13, 2017 [1 favorite]

Many thanks to all of you for your insight. I especially like the idea of checking out the readings via the bookstore!
posted by delight at 1:41 PM on March 14, 2017

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