Creating a Syllabus that Centers Black History

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Creating a Syllabus that Centers Black History
 – by Andrea Adomako, IRT ’14

In James Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers” (1963) Baldwin wrote the following:
The paradox of education is precisely this – that as one begins to become   conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. The purpose of education…is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white…to ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society.  

Today, considering the current socio-political environment we live in, Baldwin’s words still ring true. As students are taught to “ask questions of the universe and then learn to live with those questions” Black History has a historical role in inspiring the productive inquiry Baldwin speaks of. In recent years there has been a greater push to consider Black History beyond the month of February. Incorporating Black history year round is an important pedagogical shift that asks educators to elevate the history, events, and individuals that shape Black history both in the United States and globally. This shift begins first and foremost with the syllabus. Whether you are teaching a traditional History, English, or Engineering Course; or if you are teaching within an interdisciplinary field, the syllabus is the place to express and reflect your political and ethical commitments to Black History.

andrea adomako
Andrea Adomako, IRT ’14

As an educator, one of the first questions to consider is: What is a classroom space that centers Black history? To begin to answer this question, we must not approach Black history only as a subject, but also as a collective intellectual community that students and instructors actively participate within. The syllabus then becomes the first social contract students encounter when entering this community. As a living document, the syllabus should aim to be a guide on being-together in an educational setting. Below are guiding questions to help educators and students get the most out of their syllabus and center a Black historical framework.

  1. Language matters. Don’t be afraid to be poetic. Are you using words that enforce a sense of collectivity and community, which are tenets of Black history? Are there quotes and poems included that reinforce the sense of Black history that you are trying to put forth? (One of my favorite quotes included on the syllabus for a course entitled ‘An Intellectual History of Black Women’ was: “What I write and how I write is done in order to save my own life. And I mean that literally.” ~Barbara Christian).
  2. Does your syllabus offer places for students to assert their voice? Do you propose rules of engagements or ways of being together that they are invited to contribute to? Are they presented with options for assignments that allows them to tap into different intellectual strengths (i.e. they can write a traditional essay or create a digital media project or constructing a syllabus of their own).
  3. Citational Practices. Who you leave off the syllabus is just as important as who you include. Are the authors overwhelmingly cis men? Are texts U.S/Western centric? Are authors taught in isolation (i.e. having one designated week on Black women’s history or the diaspora or the history of Black sexualities) or are authors and texts integrated throughout as to not reinforce tokenization?
  4. Limits of Linearity. Black history does not and should not just exist in the past. How can you incorporate a framework of Black history that does not only move from slavery to civil rights? What would it mean to work backwards or construct a syllabus not confined by a linear framework?
  5. How you present your syllabus can hold as much weight as the content itself. Don’t be afraid to explain the ethical commitments that undergird your syllabus. Discuss the kind of Black History narratives you want to engage in and why. The syllabus can be the starting point for productive conversations.

Below are additional links educators can explore for your own teaching toolkit, particularly around syllabus design. All are brief:

Harvard Bok Center for Teaching and Learning Syllabus Design Information

Searle Center Online Teaching Resources 

Washington University: Strategies for Inclusive Teaching

Disability Access Statements

~Help the IRT Curate Content for Monthly Matters in Black History Series~
The IRT is interested in learning how educators recognize the history, events, and individuals that shape Black History not only in February but year-round. Please help us curate content for these posts by sharing your experiences, recommendations, and any resources with us!

All materials should be sent directly to Janelle Bonasera at the IRT.














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