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Critically Examining the Syllabus

Wed Jul 29, 2020 at 07:30 AM

Many of us have spent the spring and summer more deeply considering what we can do to actively advance social justice. In considering how teaching decisions work for or against social justice in our courses, the syllabus may be a good place to start, as it is the snapshot of the whole course. The syllabus can be the site for analyzing and dismantling cultural hierarchies and power structures in one’s required readings, activities, and assessments. This can include

  • Who writes the required texts
  • What student expressions count as learning
  • What cultural expressions are deemed valuable
  • The format and flexibility of course content
  • Who you cite and use as examples in presentations

As you review your syllabus, consider which texts, activities, projects, and other engagement either include a variety of students or subtly discourage participation and decrease student motivation.

Be precise about your actions and goals with the syllabus.

Being precise about what we are doing can help us be intentional about our current and future goals, and helps us properly acknowledge the distinct work of others. For example, some refer to “decolonizing the syllabus” in an oversimplified why, as a stand-in for general “diversity and inclusion stuff” rather than acknowledging the specific effects of colonialism in our teaching and students’ learning. Nayantara Sheoran Appleton (2019) challenges faculty to be precise about what they are doing with their course content and offers these terms and goals as alternatives:

  • Diversify your syllabus and curriculum
  • Digress from the cannon
  • Decentre knowledge and knowledge production
  • Devalue hierarchies
  • Disinvest from citational power structures
  • Diminish some voices and opinions in meetings, while magnifying others

These “Ds” progressively work toward deconstructing system of privilege and power: while “diversifying” might simply simply be sprinkling in more diverse texts, “decentering” is recognizing groups and ideas that over-represent a field and moving the focus off of these groups and ideas. By being more precise, you can recognize the trajectory of your work.

Be realistic about the time and effort it will take to make effective improvements.

After analyzing the syllabus and identifying some goals, determine which are most urgent and feasible and which will require more learning and work. Part of this work includes learning from others and centering their work. If we rush and implement goals with an incomplete understanding, we may effectively work against our goals. 

Determine what you can do today to immediately implement more inclusive strategies (U-M’s Inclusive Teaching Checklist may provide some ideas) and to work toward long-term changes. As many are moving to online, Flower Darby offers 6 Quick Ways to Be More Inclusive in a Virtual Classroom, focusing on universal design for learning and culturally responsive teaching.

Learn how others in your field are doing this work.

Each field likely needs to focus on different power structures at play, and the work is underway. Search for reading lists of underrecognized scholars and open educational resources. Twitter is often a good forum for recognizing scholars and activists doing critical and community engaged work related to your field. Consult professional organization listservs: if nothing is immediately available, put out a question asking others to provide sources, ideas, and insight.

The work of creating a more inclusive and just learning environment is urgent, but also requires long-term planning. Whatever ideas come out of your critical examination of the syllabus, always ask yourself what you can do right away and what is worth working toward in the months to come.

References and Resources

Appleton, N. S. (2019 February 4). Do Not ‘Decolonize' . . . If You Are Not Decolonizing: Progressive Language and Planning Beyond a Hollow Academic Rebranding. Critical Ethnic Studies. University of Minnesota Press.

Recommended: Maha Bali, Associate Professor of Practice at the Center for Learning & Teaching at the American University in Cairo (AUC), explains nuanced definitions of equity, social justice, and decolonization, with a focus on higher education (July 13, 2020). 

Enriquez, J. (2020). The documents we teach byHybrid Pedagogy. 

Renes, S. (2020). Amplifying indigenous voicesCritical digital pedagogy: A collection. Hybrid Pedagogy Publishing. 

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About the Author

Written by Christina Moore, Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. Others may share and adapt under Creative Commons License CC BY-NC. Photo by Nik Shuliahin from Unsplash.

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