Another week of reading and writing and pretending I know what I’m talking about! The third week of the quarter floats away into the distance, drawing the looming final papers, conference presentations, book reviews, grant proposals and other exciting checklist items menacingly closer. At least the sun stays out longer.
As a first year PhD student, one of my constant learning goals is how to design strong syllabi for courses I would like to teach one day (could be next quarter, could be next year, could be in thirty years). I enjoy pouring over potential books and articles. The experience throttles me back to my favorite classes at USC. It’s easy enough to google syllabi for similar courses, but in order to really hone a spectacular combination of readings, assignments, and learning outcomes, I have to pay attention to detail. Campus cultures are very different. Students learn in different ways. Heck, the quarter system creates a storm of issues- you only get ten weeks, minus intro week one and wrap-up week ten. What if a holiday falls on class day? All questions to consider. In this recent quest, one question yanks at me with every reading I assign. Representation.
By representation, I mean who gets to speak via the texts listed under each weekly heading. As the curator, I hold a substantial amount of power in my pen (ok, keyboard) to introduce students to material that will assist them in discussion, dialogue, even debate. Of course, not every source makes it to the homework section (that’s an understatement. Ask my older colleagues about paring, paring more, paring even more). Our vast knowledge proves too much for a semester-long course. It should. We work for years to make it that way. But with power comes responsibility and for me that responsibility is to represent identities that often don’t have a voice. I’ll use gender here, because inserting more texts written, edited, and translated by non-males has been my focus this week. Recognizing that every discipline splits into sub-disciplines and subsequent areas of focus, some folx might have more difficulties than others. I’m not a listicle writer (though I love a good one that features gifs of sassy animals), but I think this merits some bullet points for suggestions that have helped me. And while I focus on syllabi design because of my profession, I think this question expands to many different fields. Who is in the room, at the table, has the mic? Who makes those decisions?
So. How do we think about better representation on our syllabi?
Do a LITTLE research. Think Creatively about Where You Find Your Sources.
Ahem, pardon my sarcasm. Of course we do research. But are we keeping a critical eye out for authors and speakers who may have been passed over because they aren’t white men? Someone once trashed a book I chose for a week on Muslim experiences in the United States because it was a memoir, ie, not academic. The thing is, academic books about “the” Muslim experience tend to be written by non-Muslims. There is nothing wrong with this. But there is a difference in someone’s own story- we get vulnerability and the chance to make connections with someone who might be different from us. Pro-tip: working at a university is great because we have colleagues who may study very different subjects but these subjects intersect at points. I remember reading a theological text in my Arabic class during my master’s program, for example. If you can’t think of any sources written by women, pop over to a colleague’s office and ask for suggestions. Ask for a translation. Ask them to lunch. Hey, lunch date!
Change Unit Weekly Topics or Themes to Make Sources Relevant.
But the quarter is only ten weeks! We have to get through units 1, 2, and 3 and that’s pushing it in ten weeks! Putting in a source written by a woman throws a wrench in my WHOLE jam here! Ok, I hear you- learning goals and outcomes are important. We usually write them for administrators because students don’t read them (why should they? They’re usually bland!). Maybe you can’t change these outcomes/goals. You can change the topic of Week 5 instead (NOT to “women/females/anyone not male in ___ subject. See point below.) and make it work with the source. Use a source that reveals a kind of methodology in the field. I might have trouble finding a source about a religious community that doesn’t allow women (or maybe we just don’t know) in a specific place and time period. Think classical Taoist texts, for example. I have this other text that dates later, but comes from the same general area and falls under the general theme of the course. Instead of “Classical Taoism” Week, I get rid of the word classical and say “early.” Or I find a secondary source that talks about the Daode Jing as a potentially feminist text. I have the students debate whether this makes sense after they read some sections.
Don’t Pigeonhole Gender to One Day/Week/Topic.
Please don’t do this. I can just see the sense of accomplishment. Alright, I found not one but TWO sources written by women about women in ____ field. I organized a WHOLE class period to discuss it. I even invited a women SPEAKER to come talk about women! I’m amazing. Ok, you know what this feels like? It feels like pity. It feels like when you leave the food waste out for the raccoons (no offense raccoons. Y’all are cute.). It feels like the only time women get to be represented is when we are talking specifically about gender and that in any other theme, women just aren’t allowed or important. Representation matters on every.single.level. I’m not saying all the sources need to be written by women. I’m saying think about who speaks through the sources every single week. Looking further than the usual suspects means I get to have more innovative discussions with my students. I might even learn something new. Learning? That’s not…that’s literally my job. Yay.
If You Really Can’t Find Any Authors, at Least Look for Texts Written about Non-Males.
I’ve looked EVERYWHERE, taken my colleagues to lunch, poured over other syllabi, picked through the archives. There just aren’t any women who have written about _____. Unfortunately, given the history of oppression and gatekeeping for non-male scholars, writers, thinkers-anyone with a voice, really-sometimes the sources don’t exist. It’s not acceptable to just revert back to the all-male cast. Are there any texts written about women? And they don’t have to be about a superhero. I fell into the trap earlier of getting frustrated because I couldn’t find a “strong” female character in a set of texts. That doesn’t mean there weren’t any. That means my students should learn to engage with how writers depicted women and not just label them “sexist” without further examination of context. Let’s be honest (as honest as we can, given the limited material we have) about experiences that run the spectrum of heroic to traumatic to “mundane.” The point is my students learn to ask questions, not assert unfair judgments about cultures they do not know.
Thanks for your consideration. Now go out to lunch so you can grade those midterms.