The Open Syllabus Project has collected syllabuses1 from about a million college classes. From this they’ve created the Open Syllabus Explorer.
It’s generally focused on listing which texts occur in syllabi. This ends up meaning that it’s mostly useful for humanities classes, since they tend to assign a larger number of texts. I remember my grad school oral exams, where there were perhaps four books I was studying from; there were friends of mine in the humanities that would have, say, 50 books.
That being said, it’s still interesting to know that people who assign Stanley’s Enumerative Combinatorics also assign Wilf’s generatingfunctionology. And, somewhat more confusingly, Rudin’s Real and Complex Analysis – which makes me suspect that perhaps some lists of canonical math texts in a variety of subjects got caught in the dragnet.
An analogue of this for more technical subjects, where there are many books covering similar material and where there are fewer texts per course, would examine the portions of the books which are covered. Which subjects are seen as essential, and which ones are not? Many textbooks include a bit in the introduction that can be paraphrased as “my book is too long for one course, I know, so here are some one-course subsets of it” – but which of those susbets actually get used? This would require parsing the syllabi, and is perhaps feasible (and maybe the folks at the OSP are thinking about it). This is very much the sort of thing I would have liked to see when I was planning new courses, and on a hard drive that no longer works I’m pretty sure I have some files with lists of “professor X, in semester Y, covered chapters A, B, and C of the textbook”.
1. My wife, a classics major, informs me that that’s the right plural, because “syllabus” is not of the declension that pluralizes by taking “-us” to “-i”. Interestingly, the NYT article uses “syllabuses” but the OSP’s page uses “syllabi”.