Stage One: Preparing for Decolonizing Syllabus Design Through Self-Excavation
When I think about my own journey as an educator and creator of syllabi, I have found that my process of decolonization has unfolded in two recursive stages: self-excavation and design. As a white person, I have spent my lifetime swimming, to use Kelly Maxwell’s (2004) metaphor, in the “’water’ of whiteness” that has obfuscated what is taken-for-granted, yet deeply problematic and often oppressive to others, including the content and structure of syllabi. While I would love to be able to say that when I first began my tenure, issues of accessibility, representation (or lack thereof), tone, and ownership were first order concerns in my syllabus consideration set, this is not entirely true. At the beginning, thoughts about “rigor,” “coverage,” and a desire to prove my own legitimacy as a scholar often overshadowed the need to ensure my syllabus honored the humanity of all of my students. To put this in writing for an audience of my peers is difficult, but necessary. To pretend things were different would only further perpetuate a culture of white supremacy in higher education where the illusion of perfection and certainty is currency. Thus, in this post I am called to begin where I started; not with the design of a syllabus, but with the excavation of the self--Stage One.
For me, decolonizing my syllabi has been a part of a larger process of thinking deeply, critically, and recursively about my own educational autobiography through a critical race theoretical lens in order to render visible the operational narratives of teaching and learning that I have internalized over my lifetime that do not serve all students. Narratives of meritocracy, of racial, cultural and linguistic superiority, of number-worshiping, of saviorism, among potent others. This excavation, what Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz (2018) refers to as “the archeology of the self,” is undoubtedly challenging, potentially painful work that is inherently unfinished. However, it is critical to engage in this critical self-reflection if we truly seek to support the learning and self-actualization of all students in our classrooms.
I have often struggled to put this process of self-excavation into words—concerned with what I “should” say, of how it may be received and by whom. It is easy to rely heavily on academic discourse instead of speaking plainly and from the heart. This is a tendency that I have also recognized in my work with white preservice educators. When asked to “begin with the self,” many white students often become silent, unable to “find the right words” to describe the lived experiences that have shaped their racial identity development, or, conversely, use language to deflect or distance themselves from the real work at hand. Acknowledging this tendency, I have turned to something that decenters the role of verbal language as a vehicle for self-excavation--collage.
Collage, as a mode of visual inquiry, can be defined as “the process of using fragments of found images or materials and gluing them to a flat surface to portray phenomena '' (Butler-Kiesber & Poldma, 2010, p. X). As an arts-based research method, collage posits that verbal language is not the only mode of exploring an individual's lived experience and recognizes art as a viable and meaningful way of knowing (Eisner, 2002). I find a generative parallel between the creation of a syllabus and the creation of a collage. Both activities feature the pulling together of found materials over time to create something that does not yet exist. Both activities involve research and revision—the search for, addition of, and removal of materials in pursuit of an expressive whole. Both activities require attention to audience, (re)presentation, tone, and gaps in received knowledge and frameworks. Both activities result in products through which aspects of the self are revealed.
To this end, I share my own collage entitled “Stage One”. In this work, my found materials were a stack of popular and academic publications that had grown in my home over the course of the pandemic. With the phenomenon of the relationship between self-excavation and syllabi in mind, I flipped through each magazine, sometimes looking specifically for an image, phrase, or word, and other times open to possibility, seeking to be inspired. I added and then removed, arranged and rearranged, until it felt like I had created a meaningful first draft that I could share.
Below, I trace my own learnings from this self-excavation process. To do so, I draw upon words found in the collage (in italics) and respond to and through them as I seek to describe my sense-making.
First, I gained greater clarity about the “master narratives” about whiteness that I have internalized over my lifetime as well as the ways that they (can) continue to wield their power. Specifically, I have further unearthed the narrative that what is white or proximal to whiteness is ordinary, common, normal, and represents the best, right, and/or true way to speak, live, and learn. This is a narrative of power and control that is reified by fear of losing one’s world, way, worth, and survival. Its potency is the result of its affective dimensions. Believing it is not only easy, because of its prominence and prevalence in history, in science, in data, in laws, in structures like the institution of polic(ing), among others, but also because it produces a good feeling of comfort, belonging, safe(ty) and pride in the believer.
Second, I gained greater clarity around the shape of my journey of racial identity awareness. This journey has not been linear. It has been and continues to be recursive, messy, and often experienced in fits and starts. Pain, fear, anxiety, and exposure have caused me to, at multiple points, resist the process and to seek refuge in the familiar and easy. As time has passed and I have more deliberately attempted to lean into rather than away from the discomfort, I have found a potential clearing. This space, from where I listen, reflect, reveal and share in this moment, is one where I am grow(ing) against the current by beginning to advocate for change not in some distant future, but in the now, a space where I am compelled to take action and to show up in ways that I was not before. This moment in my journey is still messy and my process will always be unfinished, but I am now able to make some sense of the mess in ways that may be of help to others beyond myself.
Finally, through these efforts, I have, for the first time, been able to visualize the ways in which the process of self-excavation has specifically influenced and continues to influence my pedagogical practice, including the creation of syllabi. It is through this self-work that I have been called to reimagine the future of education by deconstruct(ing) ‘best practice’ and ‘common knowledge’ about what teaching and learning should be. I have been able to see higher education as itself a system, and have recognized my duty to interrupt practices and policies that perpetuate harm, particularly for those students who have been historically marginalized. This means that I have had to rethink, for example, what constitutes a caring teacher-student relationship and what engagement looks and sounds like in my classroom. It has meant that I now not only solicit feedback regularly from my students, but also adjust my practice in real time in response, even if it means that I need to relinquish power and/or control. It has caused me to actively and continuously recalibrate my priorities as both a person and as a pedagogue.
I hope that this description and visual representation of my “archeology of the self” (Sealey-Ruiz, 2018) can offer an example (not an exemplar) of what this first stage of decolonization work can look and feel like. While all educators can benefit from “beginning with the self,” I believe that it is especially imperative for white educators to begin with self-excavation before engaging in syllabus design with the goal of decolonization. In the absence of such critical self-reflection, we may be able to craft, for example, a syllabus that centers the contributions of BIPOC scholars in our discipline, but may continue to perpetuate harm in our relationships with students. We may be able to reimagine and revolutionize our grading structure, but still maintain oppressive classroom policies rooted in linguistic chauvinism. Because syllabi, as living artifacts of pedagogical philosophies, are vehicles through which our commitments to our disciplines, to our students, and to ourselves are articulated, self-awareness should precede design.
n.b. My sincere thanks to Alice Lesnick and Alison Cook-Sather for being critical thought partners in the creation of this post.
Butler-Kisber, L., & Poldma, T. (2010). The power of visual approaches in qualitative inquiry: The use of collage making and concept mapping in experiential research. Journal of Research Practice, 6(2), M18-M18.
Eisner, E. W. (2002).The arts and the creation of mind. Yale University Press.
Maxwell, K. E. (2004). Deconstructing whiteness: Discovering the water. Counterpoints, 273, 153-168.
Sealey-Ruiz, Y. (2018, January 5). Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz: The archaeology of the self [Video]. Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/299137829