by Guy Spriggs
For almost 3 years, the Open Syllabus Project (OSP) has collected and analyzed syllabi to shed light on what texts are assigned in college courses. The Project boasts a catalog of 1.1 million syllabi, and its insights were chronicled in a January 2016 feature in the New York Times titled, “What a Million Syllabuses Can Teach Us.”
As the OSP continued the enormous task of looking through syllabi for resources and assignments, it also released the Syllabus Explorer, a search function which enables visitors to see what texts are most commonly assigned by location and field of study. It was around this time that UK sociology professor Edward Morris received a phone call from his mentor from graduate school.
“She sent me a link and said I had to check it out,” he explained. “I had no idea, because you don’t know when your work is being taught. I was surprised when I saw it.”
What Morris saw was his article, “‘Tuck in That Shirt!’ Race, Class, Gender, and Discipline in an Urban School,” ranked number 46 out of the 13,225 sociology-related articles taught in America. This makes his article one of the most frequently assigned readings in sociology courses throughout U.S. universities.
Morris is understandably thrilled with the results. “There are really famous sociologists lower on the list, so there must be something about this particular article,” he said. “I think it gives teachers a mechanism to impart something valuable. I’m very happy to see that teachers have found it useful.”
Moreover, Morris appreciates having a completely different metric for understanding who is using his article – as well as how. By revealing how frequently articles are used in the classroom, the OSP gives scholars like Morris more context for understanding the effects of their work.
“You’re used to seeing how often your work is cited in journals, but that doesn’t tell you the full range of impact,” he explained. “I’ve always tried to do with my work is make it accessible. That’s an aspect of my work that’s reflected in the Open Syllabus Project.”
The result of 2 years of ethnographic research at an urban middle school, “Tuck in That Shirt!” explores how school dress codes can serve as institutionalized mechanisms of discipline. Morris says the article reflects his broader interest in how structures of inequality are reproduced and even created in our education system.
More specifically, he engages with a critical paradigm called intersectionality to show how seemingly separate elements of identity and power are instead interrelated.
“The workings of race, class and gender are integrated – you can’t look at one in isolation. I try to understand that within an educational setting. I’ve always been interested in the idea that education is the great equalizer, but the chances offered within education seem pretty unequal,” Morris said.
It can be difficult to present such a critical perspective on education: people don’t normally think of school as a place where inequalities are taught. But Morris sees value in challenging preconceptions of what ideas are actually communicated through the education system. In particular, his work discusses a concept called the hidden curriculum, which suggests students learn lessons about identity and subjectivity that aren’t part of a school’s overt, educational curriculum.
The real benefit of Morris’s work – and the reason why it is one of the commonly-assigned articles in his field – may result not only from his efforts in exposing such structures of inequality, but also from relating them to new audiences in a clear, coherent way.
“I deal with some more complex ideas like the hidden curriculum, cultural capital and bodily discipline – things teachers are going to want to introduce,” he explained. “I think I apply those using a relatable setting and through accessible writing. It provides a perspective for them and presents theoretical ideas any student can understand.”