Our classrooms are diverse on multiple levels, with students in the room from many states, countries, and language backgrounds. Our students’ complex and intersectional identities represent many different kinds of lived experiences with race, socioeconomics, gender, sexual identity, ability, and privilege. While as faculty we strive to make our classrooms welcoming to all, and to create an inclusive climate for class participation, we sometimes overlook the important role of our readings or other texts–the very core of our classes.
An enormous amount has been written about diversifying, or decolonizing, the syllabus. Max Liboiron, in this 2019 piece from CLEAR (a feminist, anti-colonialist research lab), wrestles with the difficult decisions we need to make here: “Inclusion is a form of diversification but it can also be violent. Inviting voices into spaces not built for them or that undermine their messages, lived experiences, and expertise can often work against the well-intentioned goals of inclusion.”
We know that we need to diversify our syllabi: as Jasmine Roberts, in “White Academia: Do Better,” writes, “Your Black students and other students of color need to actually see themselves reflected in class content. This leads to more engaging learning. It also helps broaden the education of your White students.” Still, instructors might still be wondering how to do so. Partly because of these complex undercurrents, and partly also because of the breadth of topics we teach in the Writing Program, we cannot simply say that instructors should add a single book by a person of color and consider the syllabus successfully diversified. Instead of a list of texts to include, we suggest a reflective process in which we as instructors interrogate our own biases and consider what true inclusion might look like on our syllabi.
Why, as a White instructor, should you teach Black texts, and how can you do so effectively?
“As the White instructor of seminars such as ‘Black Female Lives Matter’ and ‘Interrogating Race in Contemporary America,’ which tend to draw many non-White students, I am never entirely comfortable in these classes, in part because I recognize that students might prefer an instructor of color to frame these topics. On the first day of class, I acknowledge that BU’s faculty composition does not adequately reflect that of its students. But even if it did, I would continue to make space for a wide variety of perspectives in my courses. By creating more diverse syllabi, we create more inclusive classrooms, where together we can grapple through and beyond our mutual discomfort. This collaborative learning sends the message that racism is not a burden to be borne only by citizens of color–rather, it should concern all of us.”
–Jessica Bozek, Senior Lecturer
Reflect on your own role as an instructor
Michael Seward, writing for the NCTE Standing Committee on Global Citizenship, offers useful goals: “[T]o begin to ameliorate the deep damage caused by colonization and racism (systems of power) means to be actively and overtly political. To decolonize the classroom, one must examine oneself and one’s beliefs.” He continues, arguing that instructors need to “[l]et go of the disingenuous notion of objectivity in the classroom, of maintaining political neutrality, of seeing all sides and positions as having equal impact on marginalized groups”; “[a]cknowledge that your role as teacher has been historically problematic: that by teaching English you are inherently complicit with forces that damage marginalized students,” and ultimately also “[s]ee yourself, your curriculum, your content and your classroom as existing within a historical context of racism, subjugation, and control.”
Make efforts to include Black scholars as argument or theory sources, not just as exhibits
The BEAM/BEAT framework reminds us that there are many ways of using sources; ideally, we would model for our students the use of Black and other scholars of color in all roles, not just as exhibit sources. Marius Kothor, in a guest post called “5 Anti-Racist Practices White Scholars Can Adopt Today” for the popular academic blog The Professor Is In, argues that “Citation practices are political statements. The choices scholars make about who and how to cite reflect their attitudes about whose work is worth serious intellectual engagement. Over the years, initiatives like #citeblackwomen have highlighted the ways in which white scholars marginalize their Black peers, particularly Black women scholars, by not citing their work.”
How can we work to expose international students, who are primarily from Asia, to non-Asian BIPOC voices?
The first thing I do is poll students (anonymously) about what racial stereotypes they are familiar with (stressing that I am not asking what they believe, just what they have heard). Once I’ve reviewed this list I can build discussions around unpacking these beliefs culturally and historically and then introduce sources (in a variety of media) that offer authentic BIPOC voices and experiences. Even more so than our native students, international students, who often come from monoracial/ethnic cultures, need help understanding the context and nuances of the racial history and lived experiences of BIPOC, and they are looking to us (whether they know it or not) to provide it.
–Sarah Hanselman, Master Lecturer
Think about reframing your discipline or sub-field
Kim Solga, in a blog called “The Activist Classroom,” talks about what she learned from an indigenous scholar, Dylan Robinson, about how to reframe her plan for a reading list: “The most basic problem, he highlighted for us, is not that there are white dudes all over our courses (though that IS a problem, and jettisoning them is no bad thing). The most basic problem is that we let these white dudes set the tone, frame the question, and thus–as I had already felt uncomfortably in my seminar–shape the term’s work.” Instead, she muses, “What if we let a woman of colour, or an indigenous scholar or artist, do that privileged labour instead? What if the white dudes were required to dialogue with them, rather than the other way around? What if indigenous world views became the backbone of the course’s ecosystem, and colonial knowledge systems were required to take a back seat for once?”
Confront the prejudices embedded in your discipline or sub-field
Instructors working in some disciplines or sub-fields may find it relatively easy to superficially diversify their reading lists. However, it’s also important that we consider the danger inherent in teaching “damage-centered” texts that cement a broken view of marginalized communities. You may need to work harder to contextualize the Black texts you include so that students can begin to analyze the biases that surround common White interpretations. Liboiron goes on to state that “You can start by learning and teaching about the colonial roots and ongoing structures of colonialism in your discipline….learning the truths of colonization is literally your job. Doing the work is crucial. Doing it with students is even better.”
Consider your students, and include them in this process
While instructors may sometimes express frustration at the growing popularity of the word “relatable” by students, good pedagogy suggests that we should attempt to meet students where they are, even while we challenge them to expand their thinking and move beyond their current knowledge and skills. Giving students responsibility for choosing or presenting some readings, and arguing for their inclusion in the syllabus (and maybe in the canon) is a great exercise. Though in the classroom we are the experts on writing, we don’t need to be experts on all the content we teach. As instructors, we can condition ourselves to be okay with some discomfort (especially when we often frame discomfort as essential to students’ learning). We are seasoned critical thinkers, which translates into an ability to curate texts, ask thoughtful questions, expand context, help students make connections across texts and between texts and their own experiences, and get everyone in the room to grapple together, to debate collaboratively. Ultimately, until our faculty composition better reflects that of our students, we should all be using our platform and relative power to make space in our courses for a wider variety of perspectives.[/collapsible]
- Seeing White (2017): John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika’s 14-part documentary podcast that takes an engaging and insightful look at the history, manifestations, and consequences of whiteness.
- The Reader’s Guide for Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism (2018) offers some useful pointers on facilitating challenging conversations on race with White people, who may believe that the topic doesn’t relate to them, or may feel uncomfortable or even attacked.