“If you’re a teacher and you don’t take time to think about how to teach,” award-winning scholar and educator Hasan Jeffries said on Twitter, “then you’re not teaching, you’re just talking.” Like Jeffries, I have noticed that too many instructors operate as if displaying their learnedness is the same thing as teaching. People who engage in this self-deception hold themselves and each other to low standards. And the people who can succeed while clinging to low standards occupy specific demographic categories—the most important of which is being considered white. Of course, white people are the largest segment of the American professoriate, of pre-K–12 teachers, and even of the criminally mistreated “new faculty majority” of the higher-education sector. Whether tenured or not, the teaching force’s whiteness has facilitated other commonalities, such as a lack of self-reflection. As Jeffries notes, few ask whether they are teaching in the right way, and if they can or must teach differently.
Fortunately, tackling this question is why William Germano and Kit Nicholls’s new book, Syllabus: The Remarkable, Unremarkable Document That Changes Everything, exists.
Those who talk rather than teach, or display learnedness rather than engage constructively with students, have led the conversation for too long. Many of these educators suddenly discovered reasons for alarm around 2016. They could now be heard lamenting the “distrust of experts and expert knowledge,” as if such suspicion is new. But teachers who are not straight and/or white and/or male have always worked under antagonistic conditions, which some wrongly claim only emerged with Donald Trump’s political ascendency.
Lest we forget, we couldn’t have had a Trump presidency without ordinary Americans’ tolerance for birtherism. And make no mistake: birtherism was the ultimate campaign of suspicion about someone else’s credentials in which the accuser’s credentials did not matter, because whiteness was the only qualification needed.
Likewise, some teachers in dominant groups pretend their careers have not been shaped by their demographic categories. In so doing, these instructors create environments akin to birtherism. Students who remind these teachers of themselves are coddled and catered to as a matter of course; meanwhile, everyone else must meet high standards that often have little to do with learning.
Though Germano and Nicholls never say in Syllabus that whiteness has produced the problems their book addresses, it has. For example, they warn teachers that “the moment to pose as the great sage has passed.” Why? Because they rightly recognize the danger of classroom experiences shaped by “great women and men whose brilliance was balanced by an eccentric lack of enthusiasm for the structural ordering of a syllabus.” If posing as a “great sage” creates problems, only those who look the part can strike that pose, and whiteness has always been written into the casting call.
In many ways, Syllabus affirms the mode of teaching I have encouraged during my 15 years as a professor who also trains instructors and faculty members around the country. Good teachers know they must “induce student learning rather than deliver teaching,” so they must create communities in which students work in ways that deepen their thinking and intellectual engagement. For effective teachers, the syllabus is something we make “any time we hope to bring a body of people into a body of knowledge.”
Just as Writing Across the Curriculum highlights the power of composition and rhetoric in every discipline, Germano and Nicholls show how constructing the syllabus can facilitate self-reflection that fuels powerful pedagogy in every subject area. Syllabus therefore offers prompts for thinking and writing to help teachers create a plan for the academic term that structures not only coursework but also how students will use feedback from both their peers and their instructor toward discovery and growth.
Creating community is crucial, because students have agency.
Syllabus addresses the harms done by older damaging mentalities. While reading, I sometimes wrote “DUH!” or “of course” in the margins, but I could also immediately think of a faculty member who actually needs the advice.
For instance, Germano and Nicholls nudge, “Those teachers who complain about students handing in late work might ask themselves whether they return graded work quickly and no later than promised.” After all, “You’ve given an assignment to them—and one to yourself, too.” They counsel, “if you put [a reading] on the syllabus, use it in class—at the earliest possible opportunity.” Likewise, they encourage teachers to consider what they are testing for when they give an assignment. Are we aiming to sharpen “rhetorical skills, content knowledge, theatrical flair, IT facility? If we don’t know—and don’t make clear to the student what we expect—we’ve failed them before they’ve had the chance to exercise their agency.”
Here’s another gem: “Discussion nearly always needs to have a goal in mind; otherwise it’s unlikely to teach students what we want it to.” Meanwhile, this book reminded me that, just as some doctors have no bedside manner, there are professors for whom this must be made explicit: “We start with pleasantries, a few questions about how they’re doing. This is important work for office hours, important work for teaching, but it can’t become the main work.”
Perhaps I find so much affirmation for my teaching practices in this book because I never had any delusions about being a “great sage.” Likewise, it may be why Germano and Nicholls often gesture toward members of marginalized groups as model teachers: bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Barack Obama, Cathy N. Davidson. Despite their prominence, these are people whose expertise is never simply taken for granted, in a culture that convinces everyone that legitimate authority, especially authority based on intellect, comes in the form of a straight white cisgender man.
Syllabus moves away from the “great sage” ethos because it is most invested in helping teachers create learning communities. And creating community is crucial, because students have agency. Students must choose to do the work that will facilitate learning, so teachers must give them reasons to make that choice, again and again. As Germano and Nicholls put it, “no student does excellent work—even or especially required work—they haven’t chosen to do themselves.”
As important, students’ material realities shape courses; Syllabus therefore encourages teachers to engage those realities intellectually and on purpose. Plagiarism warnings and statements about disability accommodations acknowledge students’ different abilities and levels of preparation, but because these elements must typically appear in the language of the institution, it is tempting to go into autopilot on these issues. Germano and Nicholls urge instructors to resist such temptations and to actually think through how they can make every student a true citizen of the learning community being created.
Because it emphasizes lived experiences and the pedagogical power of community, Syllabus reminds me of the principles guiding the best teachers I know. Germano and Nicholls say, “Teachers teach and learners learn not just out of their brains but out of their bodies.” They continue, “who ever has a choice not to be anchored in their own body?”
As tempting as “DUH!” may be, I know many who wouldn’t be ashamed to declare, “I love experiments, and this is science. My being white has nothing to do with my teaching of this material.” In countless subject areas, many operate as if they are simply intellectuals, and as if their being white, for example, has little impact on how they do the job. Because this mentality is widespread, and it can do great harm, Syllabus exists. The ubiquity of this harm-inducing mentality also prompted me to design my edition of the 1892 novel Iola Leroy in ways that “make it hard for teachers and scholars to continue to pretend that whiteness has nothing to do with how they’ve been operating.” In other words, if building a learning community requires accounting for actual bodies and lives, then students’ are not the only ones that matter.
Being a Black woman has meant having my authority challenged in ways that my white colleagues seldom encounter.
Institutional pressures ensure that course planning will address students’ material realities (such as race or gender or ability), but Germano and Nicholls insist that “bodies produce the syllabus, too.” With this reminder, the book implicitly encourages readers to consider: How does this syllabus demonstrate awareness of the fact that a specific body produced this document and the learning it is designed to facilitate?
In my own syllabi, one way I show awareness is with my classroom covenant, which now says our learning environment will be free of hate speech regarding “physical and/or mental ability.” This change emerged from my realizing how being normatively able has shaped my experiences. Without a job ad ever saying so, perhaps the biggest criterion I met to reach this place in my career has been embodying those “norms.”
Constructing my syllabi with that awareness has also shaped how I use the very first class day. I introduce students to the practices that will help us build our intellectual community, including thinking critically and making fewer assumptions. We will not presume to know the pronouns anyone uses; everyone is asked to share which pronouns they “use,” not which pronouns they “prefer.” Again, this has everything to do with my realizing how my success at school relied on matching the gender expression people expected. At school, ideas about who belongs were so fundamental as to be unconscious, and this was true for authority figures no less than for my peers, so being able to conform was way more important than being smart.
Recognizing my body’s role in all of my experiences took self-reflection, the kind encouraged by Syllabus. Being a Black woman has meant having my authority challenged in ways that my white colleagues—whether male or not—seldom encounter. But being read as straight, as cisgender, as normatively able has also yielded a level of acceptance of my rightful presence, which must be understood if I am going to be what I am trying to inspire my students to be: lifelong learners.
Above all, Syllabus offers prompts for doing the thinking about teaching that will empower readers to create learning communities. Because “communities are made, not born,” teachers must consider what will make them cohere. For instance, communities are sustained through “rituals of regard,” so teachers can maximize the power of such rituals. I do this with call-and-response, beginning and ending classes with corny cheers specific to my courses. But rituals can be even simpler. Answering in the same affirming way after students indicate that they are present, whether in person or online, can become a ritual.
When teachers are doing their jobs well, students learn “not only about solutions but about solving itself.” As we prepare to create an environment in which that can happen, “every teacher has the choice of imagining either an audience of theoretical listeners or real people with whom a learning community is co-built.” When we account for what has shaped our lived experiences, we fully participate in the intellectual community that will learn together. Indeed, in the authors’ words, “we communicate our belief that knowledge is a group project—many-headed, many-voiced—by demonstrating our fascination with and admiration for the way others work and think, and by showing respect for approaches different from our own.”
I feel fortunate to know many who operate in precisely this way. But we need more teachers to hold themselves to standards that require this kind of self-reflection, especially as students encounter ever more evidence that education can fail to yield the economic and social mobility it promises.
Do teachers have something to offer? If it’s not simply vocational options, what is it? As we complain about people doubting the value of education, have we gotten clear within ourselves about what we provide that we truly believe in? As important, have we committed ourselves to finding more convincing ways to communicate that belief?
As Tressie McMillan Cottom put it, “You don’t realize you’re a faith-based institution until there’s a crisis of the faith.” Some of us recognized this crisis long before Trump’s ascendency. Some needed the explicitness of Trump and his supporters to feel a sense of urgency. Regardless of when one awakens to the reality that “teachers are believers first, instructors second,” Syllabus offers writing prompts that encourage the introspection that will yield the insights teachers need. It creates a road map for educators at every level, and of every subject, to get to clarity about what we believe we offer when we teach.
This article was commissioned by Carolyn Dever.