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Reflection on an imaginary syllabus

Reflection on an imaginary syllabus

When I first learned that as part of my doctoral learning experience I would have to teach, I felt trepidation. I was informed that in my third year of doctoral studies, my fellowship, which covered tuition, health care, and provided me with a small stipend, would end. However, if I taught just one course per semester that year, I would basically have the same coverage that had been provided thus far by my fellowship. This could be seen as a great opportunity to avoid a large expense and at the same time gain an entry into the teaching world, something that is often the main reason why people decide to obtain a doctorate. But I couldn’t hear it this way, the thought of being in front of a class for an entire semester was so scary that I began contemplating life with additional debt; something not too pleasant given that thirteen years after obtaining a master’s in social work from Columbia University, I’m still not student loan debt-free.

At that moment, the option to teach connected me with the difficulties I was having as a first-year doctoral student which reflected my struggles with being back in academia after ten years, my feelings about writing in a language that is not my mother tongue, and my disillusion with finding myself in a space with no professors of color. As I reflected on my education experience in the US–which felt rigid, foreign, and scary–my heart sunk at the realization that it has predominantly been without courses taught by Latinx. Sure, in third grade, there had been one Latinx teacher’s assistant, that was also my first year in this country and the class had a large number of students like me that were starting to learn English, that’s where the teacher’s assistant came in. Then in higher education, there was that one time there was a Latinx guest speaker and I did take one literature course in the Spanish department that was taught by a prominent bi-racial, US born professor. That’s it, that’s the extend of it, quite normal for most of the US but infuriating and baffling when you factor in that my entire education in the US has been in New York, actually mainly in Queens, the most diverse borough in the world (Gamio, 2019)!

Through my fellowship, during my second semester I ended up guest lecturing. There I was, in front of the room having to do exactly what I wanted to avoid doing. To my surprise, this very diverse set of students engaged with and enjoyed what and how I presented the material and I, dare I say, thoroughly enjoyed the experience. This trickery played by fate led me to wonder about the possibility of facing my fears of teaching. I enrolled for the Introduction to Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences course to gain as many skills as possible to tackle the gargantuan task of teaching-while-being-myself. On the first day of class, what do you know, there is a Latinx in front of the room, a rarity I can now recognize as a factor of racism (Fields, 2007; Whitford, 2020) and design (Davidson, 2017). The delight of seeing Dr. Eduardo Vianna –something akin to a unicorn sighting for me–was temporally overshadowed by the syllabus’ mention of a terrible-no-good-beyond-scary possible final assignment of creating a syllabus!

As an organizer I have been sharing information to a variety of groups­ –workers, voters, students– for years. As an international worker, I presented in a variety of places such as public markets, classrooms, and meetings in Spanish, English, and French. As a psychotherapist I connect and educate individuals in an intimate manner that requires attunement, expertise and compassion on a regular basis. Yet, the idea of ownership of a class paralyzed me and I knew that creating a syllabus is an exercise that I would do when I start teaching. Thus, taking it on as an assignment meant accepting the idea of myself as an educator, I quivered. Why was this such a challenge for me? The answer, I’m finding, may be located within imposter syndrome – where one feels that you don’t belong and you are not qualified – of which I, as a high achieving woman of color am a perfect candidate (Dancy & Brown, 2011). Feeling that I still did not know enough, that there was always more to be done, or that there are numerous more knowledgeable people has been present for me not only now as I navigate the highest level of education but also in non-academic spaces where leadership is and has historically been white.

During the course of the Introduction to Engaged Teaching and Transformative Learning in the Humanities and Social Sciences class we covered topics of radical pedagogy, culturally relevant pedagogies, student-led work, and pedagogy as social justice. I began to not only see the possibility of me becoming and educator but also the importance and need for me to become one. Creating a syllabus went from an almost panic inducing choice to the obvious choice for my final class project. Working from the stance that everyone is an expert at something and that communities are aware of what they want, I decided to start my work towards a syllabus for a Race and Media course by reaching out via email and Facebook to community organizers I knew, fellow PhD students, and former colleagues. By including these voices, I would be presenting material informed by a collective of everyday experts. Part of the request I sent was as follows:

I'm thinking on creating a syllabus for a course on Race and Media and my vision is for this syllabus to be community informed because in hearing from the community I would be working from a place of possibilities and not from restriction and I will also get to learn from the process of receiving suggestions rather than if I just follow a format or create it from my individual mind. This is why I'm reaching out to you and others in my community for suggestions of topics for such a course, materials such as podcasts, articles, exhibits, etc. for these topics, and ideas for course assignments. If you were a student in such a course, what would you like to see included in it? What would best help you learn the material? As a professional what do you know or feel must be in it? 

Given that we are in the middle of a pandemic and people’s attention span and energy are affected in different ways, I was excited to receive feedback from 10 people, five responded via email, four others responded via Facebook and one responded in person. Most people responded with specific material such as Ted Talks, films, or books, one gave an idea for a final project, and one respondent had a phone conversation with me about ways of thinking about the syllabus and one other shared an ethnic studies syllabus.

Next, I attempted to put all the obtained suggested material into a syllabus and found myself with a lot of questions. I looked online for sample syllabus for Race and Media courses and found them from different departments such as communications, media studies, and cultural studies. Resorting to already existing syllabi invited that familiar feeling of “I’m not supposed to be here”, and I struggled with finding my compass. I reflected upon the fact that the exercise I was embarking on was of my choosing and that I had the freedom to imagine a course in any way I wanted. Hmm, strange how freedom and fun did not come naturally. I decided to place my imaginary Race and Media course within my department, social welfare, with this I regained the feeling of belonging, and began to enjoy the visualization of what such a course could be like.

I drew from lessons learned during the semester, such as creating a syllabus that is flexible and open to incorporating student suggestions and feedback. I saw social justice, decolonizing, and compassion woven not only in the weekly themes and materials listed but also how I presented myself in big and small ways such as by including my preferred pronouns, including a section where I share about my teaching philosophy, and the variety of possible final class assignments. In the end I used most of the suggestions provided by my respondents, but I also incorporated some media I found interesting in the syllabus for existing courses. At one point as I put together this imaginary syllabus, I realized that over the years I too had accrued materials relevant to this imaginary Race and Media course. I physically got up from my desk and pulled resources from my shelves and looked in my electronic files. In that instant what had started as an exercise of the imagination gave me a peek at a reality that had always been there but until then had been difficult for me to see. I smiled as I looked inward and said to myself, so this is what an expert looks like! Thank you for allowing the fear to shed enough for me to see you.   

References:

Colangelo, L., L. (2009, July 12). Queens one of ‘most diverse places on earth,’ new figures show. https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/queens-diverse-places-earth-new-figures-show-article-1.430744

 

Dancy, T. E., Brown, M.C. (2011). The mentoring and induction of educators of color: addressing the impostor syndrome in academe. Journal of School Leadership, 21(4), 607-634.

Davidson, C.N. (2017). College for Everyone. The New Education (pp. 47-73). Basic Books.

 

Fields, C. D. (2007). A morale dilemma – black professors on white campuses – includes related article on mentorship programs for black faculty – Cover story. https://diverseeducation.com/article/7747/

 

Gamio, L. (2019, July 4). Where America’s diversity is increasing the fastest. https://www.axios.com/where-americas-diversity-is-increasing-the-fastest-ae06eea7-e031-46a2-bb64-c74de85eca77.html

 

Whitford, E. (2020, May 6). Who Holds Professional Positions in Higher Ed, and Who Gets Paid? https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/05/06/report-details-gaps-women-and-minority-professionals-higher-ed

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