It’s that time again to begin creating or revising syllabi for fall – this year for “hyflex” classrooms! I am deeply grateful to Mildred Lewis for helping open our awareness, as faculty prepare and students scan “The Syllabus.” Gail Stearns, Dean, Wallace All Faiths Chapel
In my first semester of college I realized that syllabi weren’t just organizational tools. Whether intentionally or not, they reflect the values, training and beliefs of their creators. So, this is my story. As a first-year student, I signed up for Chem 101. The syllabus was a little difficult to penetrate and definitely not inviting. That struck me as a shame, because chemistry is an exciting, dynamic field. Then I realized that there was a small mistake. It was an error of fact rather than an administrative error.
After the class, I waited to tell the professor quietly. He told me that chemistry wasn’t for me. His remark left me stunned, but unshaken. My father was a chemist, my mother a nurse and I’d graduated from Stuyvesant High School, which had a renowned science and mathematics curriculum. As a New Yorker, I couldn’t let this go. I brought in the article that we’d read in our high school organic chemistry class and he apologized. I’ve often wondered how I would have felt if I’d been a first-generation student or less sure of what I knew.
That experience taught me to carefully review a syllabus. Understanding that there are always limitations to what can be done in a semester, it is crucial to see where a faculty member might have blind spots. What voices are missing? Are any methodologies being ignored? Is the course in dialogue with current scholarship or a mirror of what the professor was taught?
Fast forward to my own work as a professor. When I include diverse works of literature or film on my syllabi, I’m often sharing works that have shaped me as a human being and as a writer. Sometimes that work profoundly impacted the politics, laws and policies that govern my life. One of the most hurtful things has been to see students ashamed or angered by representations of bias in movies like West Side Story, unable or unwilling to engage the issues that are being raised. The most painful thing has been the hostility or indifference to even celebrated authors like Toni Morrison. The refusal to embrace both Beloved and The Sound and the Fury. It can be very tempting to simply omit these works from the syllabus.
Whatever efforts are made with regard to diversity and inclusion, they will not bring us the results we seek until they reach down into course outlines and weekly assignments, and impact our methodologies and assessments. The syllabus is a looking glass and a two-way mirror, offering us the opportunity to reflect on our practice and a chance for dialogue with our students, departments and disciplines.
Mildred Lewis is a produced and published playwright and screenwriter, poet and professor, with a breadth of directing and publication credits. A strong believer in interdisciplinary work, she teaches writing, film theory, and West African and Caribbean literature.