March 7, 2022

Transforming Syllabi for Peace

By Jackie Rangel and Christina F. Kolias

Christina Kolias studies Early Modern Literature and is interested in feminine psychology, critical race studies, the virgin trope, neurodiversity, and self-actualization theory. She currently works as a Substitute Teacher with the Corona-Norco Unified School District and hopes to teach college writing courses and English Renaissance literature courses in the future.  

Jacqueline (Jackie) Rangel is a doctoral student in the School of Educational Studies at Claremont Graduate University. She currently teaches at a high school in Whittier, California and is a mentor for the Community Partnerships for Teacher Pipeline Program. She has experience traveling abroad with students. She enjoys teaching Spanish and encouraging youth to attend college and follow their dreams.  

In Parker Palmer’s The Courage to Teach, he asks, “who is the self that teaches?” (2007, p.4). What is equally important to ask is who is the student that learns 

A syllabus defines the learning space and it teaches who we are. When we think about syllabus creation in the twenty-first century, our syllabus speaks on our behalf. Most instructors send syllabi to their students before they even meet them. This is the first impression students have of us. The front page of a syllabus is like walking through the front door of a classroom. At the threshold, students want to know what the space looks like, feels like, and whether or not it is a welcoming, inclusive and peaceful space for all. In other words, they might ask themselves, “Do I belong here?” Amongst course goals, objectives, expectations, a diversity statement on a syllabus strongly expresses a commitment to our students, but the intentions behind its content and design must not be underestimated. To peacefully transform1 a syllabus is to commit ourselves to changing the tone and language of traditional syllabi that has marginalized BIPOC students. Curating a cogent syllabus that is diverse, equitable, and inclusive in its content and design is a simple act of quiet activism that works to disrupt the legacy methods of education we have inherited. Teaching from the context of a “single story” can allow us to counter systemic structures. 

The “single story” approach to education completely disregards historically marginalized identities. In a 2009 TEDGlobal talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Adichie discussed what she calls “the danger of the single story” (2009). Adopting a single story is to “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become” (2009). The “danger” of the hegemonic single story narrative is defined by its propensity to adopt only one way of thinking in attempts to silence other important stories and histories. Transforming our syllabi is one small step in the right direction that presents alternative approaches to the historical status quo that finally acknowledges students as co-experts in aspects of learning and classroom engagement. The transformative syllabus then becomes our counter-story and a peaceful pathway to dismantle the dangers of the single story.  

In designing education for a just future, our counter story is a syllabus that is a vehicle for a more focused agenda for our curriculum that promotes equitable educational opportunities. A syllabus used to be a holding tank that strictly spoke to punitive and behavioral expectations for all students, but it is morphing into a peaceful document that affirms, sustains, and prioritizes opportunities for students to share their cultural wealth, languages, histories, and self-identifying practices, as well as signaling an invitation to engage in real-world problems through collaboration and productive struggle without abandoning high academic achievements. When we sit down to construct a syllabus, we are not just making an outline for the academic year ahead, but we are also building an explicit positionality and a transdisciplinary ethical pedagogy that encourages flexible learning in a non-punitive model. Simply put, syllabus revisions must have intentionality behind them where a syllabus is not just any other document on your computer, but a direct reflection of your allyship in action.  

Many of you might be wondering where do I start with transforming a syllabus? Our aim is to give present and future educators a place to make space for all students. We hope educators launch a transformative and peaceful syllabus into what can be a circular classroom.  

We have compiled a few strategies we can all use and live by to transform our syllabi together. First, we must think about the tone in our syllabi. A simple way that educators can break colonial paradigms in a syllabus is by adopting the first or second person points of view instead of the third person point of view. For example, in a syllabus, many instructors typically have a section for “Student Learning Outcomes” that adopts phrasing like,  “The student will__” or “The student shall be able to__.” Such phrasing creates an environment of contract. We want to cautiously avoid rhetoric of control and one that instills an imbalance of power between professor and student. We can correct this by simply employing words like “us,” “we,” and “you” in our syllabi to invite our students into the course. Adopting the third person perspective allows us to escape language of policy with relational language grounded in cultivating community, trust, and peace.

Secondly, when it comes to curating reading lists, we can promote a culture of intersectionality2 by placing white-dominant narratives in conversation with a diverse selection of multicultural and transdisciplinary scholarship. We are not suggesting that Western narratives, scholars, or writers be omitted from a course’s design. The canon is an important piece of our complicated history. Rather, we are championing for an intersectional articulation of approach that creates a participatory learning culture. White-dominant narratives should be placed in critical conversation with a plurality of perspectives that instigates dialogue about diversity, equity, and inclusion across various disciplines. In Bettina Love’s We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom, she writes, “We cannot have conversations about racism without talking about Whiteness” (2019, p.118). What we can do is reimagine the canon in a way that approaches the canon with intersectionality in mind. We must engage with whiteness in all academic subjects in ways that spark discussions centered on student agency, knowledge creation, meaningful application, co-creation, and a multidimensional variety of counter stories to combat our nation’s wicked problems.   

Lastly, as ethical educators we can further demonstrate support for our students’ professional growth and personal well-being, both in and outside of the classroom. For example, we can be mindful of having a section on our syllabi for “Campus Resources.” We can include locations, contact information, and website links to various sources of support for students’ further inquiry. It might be helpful to have separate sections for academic services like writing centers and offices of information technology. Another section can include personal and community-based services like campus security, queer resource centers, offices for disability services, counseling services for mental health awareness, and Title IX procedures for reporting misconduct. This effort of inclusion continues our commitment to ethical pedagogy through conscious and mindful attempts to maintain a student-focused framework.  

This article can be read as an encouragement to ethical educators, to turn towards teaching that becomes an act of resistance. Transforming a syllabus is a small but mighty action against injustice that embraces intersectionality in both its form and content. In the same way that the Introduction to Sara de Jong, Rosalba Icaza, Olivia U. Rutazibwa’s Decolonization and Feminisms in Global Teaching and Learning states, “This book aims to be a resource as well as a toolbox for teachers and learners seeking to participate in the creation of radical and liberatory spaces in the academy and beyond[.]” (2019, p.i), we hope this article serves as its own pedagogical resource, toolbox, and awareness builder to create radically peaceful syllabi that not only honor our students, but honors who we are as ethical educators. Transforming a syllabus is not a one-time fix; it is a perpetual iterative learning process and an unfaltering commitment that we should all make with not only ourselves, but with our students to create a future-focused and peaceful classroom culture once and for all.