The Books We Teach


In 2015, Columbia University’s Open Syllabus Project wanted to learn what books are being taught. Using data from over one million syllabi from university websites worldwide, they came up with a list of books that have been most frequently taught over the past decade. Since the, they have added another 5 million syllabi.

Would you be surprised that the top titles on the list did not change significantly? I am not surprised. Actually, I would not be surprised to discover that our reading lists haven't changed in the past 50 or, in some cases, maybe even 100 years.

This is not a list of just American colleges. "Classics" such as The Republic and the Communist Manifesto. There are not many titles on the list that I couldn't have found on my reading list as an undergrad almost 50 years ago.  

open syllabus

You can see interactive visualizations of the data at

The “traditional Western canon" dominates the top 100. Plato’s Republic is at #2 and The Communist Manifesto is at #3, and #5 is Frankenstein. Then, there comes Aristotle’s Ethics, Hobbes’s Leviathan, Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sophocles’ Oedipus, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” These titles have remained pretty stables over the years.

Who holds the top position? It is the slender writing guide Elements of Style.  

The top 50 is heavily male-dominated. However, some novelists make the list, including Jane Austen, Toni Morrison, Anne Moody, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Alice Walker.

The most-taught books tend to fall into either philosophy, literature, textbook, or guidebook. The entire list includes 165,000 texts, so there is variety. And nothing every book is "classic" since there are newer titles in areas like gender studies, media studies, digital culture, and environmental studies.

This is different from the list of the most influential academic books compiled a few years ago, although there are some shared titles. The Prince and The Republic are on this list too. It makes sense that books considered to be "influential" would make the syllabus list. But this list was made by academic booksellers, librarians, and publishers. On this list, the top spot went to Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

Here are some from that list of 20. 

  • A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
  • Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson
  • The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
  • The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
  • The Rights of Man by Thomas Paine
  • The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
  • Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Should we interpret these results as meaning that faculty are stuck teaching the same things over and over? If so, why? Because they are "classics"? Because the faculty are a bit lazy about preparing new material? Because it is what is expected by their department or academia?  That data doesn't answer these questions. 

Wikipedia, Ants and Stigmergy

herring swarm

Swarming herring

I like to discover new words, new fields of study - new things in general. My new one for today is STIGMERGY. According to Wikipedia (an apt source or the definition, as I will explain) is stigmergy is a "mechanism of indirect coordination, through the environment, between agents or actions.” That is not a very clear definition.

The concept of stigmergy has been used to analyze self-organizing activities. Those activities cover a wide area: social insects, social media, robotics, web communities, and the wider human society.

One principle of stigmergy is that the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a next action, by the same or a different agent. This can explain the way an ant colony operates. It can also explain how Wikipedia articles are created and changed.

Social insects, like ants and bees, have long been a model of collaboration. Global knowledge sharing through asynchronous collaboration is a newer example. I believe I may have heard this word a or concept more than a decade ago when "Web 2.0" was a new and much-talked-about idea. Now, I hardly ever hear Web 2.0 mentioned - and that's not because we got past it and into Web 3.0.

The word is not all that new. It was coined in 1959 by French biologist Pierre-Paul Grassé in reference to termite behavior, from the Ancient Greek stigma, "mark”, “sign" + ergon "work”, “action."

You might hear the word used in a conversation about swarm intelligence. Swarm intelligence (SI) is the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems, natural or artificial and it is employed in work on artificial intelligence and applications such as cellular robotic systems. It has been studied in the natural world in ant colonies, bird flocking, hawks hunting, animal herding, bacterial growth, fish schooling and the somewhat scary world of microbial intelligence.

The World-Wide Web is the first stigmergic communication medium for humans. The earlier telephone and even email don't count as stigmergic communication since they are only readable by the people on either end. Stigmergic communication means the messages are readable by everyone. And radio and TV don't fit the definition because they are read-only mediums for most people (until the Web emerges and the read/write of Web 2.0 takes hold). 

Wikipedia with its millions of contributors is an example of stigmergy. Its editors are a good example of how these traces of articles and edits left in the wiki environment stimulate the performance of a next action, by the same person or a different person(s).

I discovered (or possibly rediscovered) stigmergy from an episode of the podcast with guests Katherine Maher, the executive director of the Wikimedia Foundation and Clint Penick, an ant researcher and assistant research professor in the Biomimicry Center at Arizona State University.


"Stigmergy as a universal coordination mechanism I: Definition and components"