Lakshmi Sarah

Producer, Educator & Writer

How to Check if Your Syllabus Reinforces Patriarchy

When I received the course guidelines for the first year of my Master’s here in Denmark and Germany, I immediately Googled my future professors. I was disappointed to learn that all except for one were white men (this has since changed – we have a woman and another non-white man, rejoice!).

Granted, the European context is very different from the American context and there are a wide array of factors that come into play, but still, disappointment is a valid feeling. My disappointment did not last too long, as I was pleasantly surprised when one professor turned out to be well-read in social movement media.

Fast forward a few months. In one course on politics (sidenote: taught by three white men) the course was covering the BRIC’s (For those unfamiliar with the silliness of academic acronyms, “BRIC” refers to rising global economic powers of Brazil, Russia, India and China.) In my course, complete with classmates from 45 different countries (though predominantly European), several classmates brought up the fact that though we were discussing the BRIC’s, we were reading texts from professors in the US and Europe, but not from the countries being referred to.

In true liberal-academic-form, the professors were very open to our feedback. However, the response was lackluster. One professor said the team of professors would be happy to consider any readings we might suggest for the future. In my view, this translates to a tokenization of texts from an “othered” perspective, just to say we “tried.” In addition, one professor highlighted the fact that we did, indeed, have a text by a “third-world writer.” Shocked into silence at the categorization and tokenization of our single Global South representative, I think that was when I gave up the fight. No, actually, that was when I raised my hand, but the white male at the back of the class spoke before I was called on.

This piece is a delayed response to my own professors, and a reminder to us all when we consider the institutionalized structure of various forms of oppression. Adam Mansbach’s “My Fake College Syllabus” was part of my inspiration.

Course Description. How is the learning structured? Is it based on the traditional lecture by an expert? If so, you have already failed to understand and acknowledge experienced knowledge.

Participation Structure. Do you give a check-mark every time someone speaks, regardless of what they say? Are you aware of the power dynamics in the room? Have you made the space comfortavle for those who identify as men, women, or choose to go beyond a binary? Is the space saf for all participants regarless of religion, nationality, race, class and ability?

Books and Readings. How many writers of color are included? What is the percentage of men and women? Where are the writers from? Have you included any queer writers? I realize that not all subjects have a diverse range of writers to begin with, but ignoring this absence also reinforces it. Even if we are talking about astrophysics, how can you present the information in adifferent format? When considering what books or readings are available, have you made sure that there is a copy of all necessary books in the campus library and/or the local library? This ensures that even the students who may not tell you outright that they cannot afford another book have an opportunity to do all the readings.

Contact Information and Office Hours. It is true, if I were a professor I would probably create a separate email address for use with students, and Mansbach mentions the:

“hysterically punctuated excuse you fired off at five this morning or seven nanoseconds before class started… To say nothing of the sadness that blooms in my soul like a dark flower when I receive emails from students at addresses such as”

But despite the inappropriate use of email, there are still students who may find writing an email easier to explain certain situations. A variety of means of contact ensures that people are able to use what is most comfortable to each person.

Grading. I went from kindergarten to eighth grade without grades, thank you Peninsula School. Even now I don’t quite see the use in someone telling me how they think my paper did, when it does not include any feedback on how to improve.  But, in an effort to support those who have to grade, is the grading system clear and based on a variety of evaluative measures?

The sad fact of the matter seems to be that many professors do not think to do a final check of their syllabi, beyond content and grammar. If they do, not many double-check for patriarchy (and the next step would be for heteronormativity, as well). Perhaps this is the new dream…something we can one day aspire to.

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This entry was posted on February 6, 2013 by in B*tch Magazine.


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