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Decolonizing Higher Education Syllabi: Beyond the Aesthetics of the Syllabus

The purpose of the age-old course syllabus remains the same — a crucial document that sets the foundation for a course by providing students with essential information, outlining expectations, and serving as a reference point throughout the semester. Moreover, the syllabus speaks to the course structure, description, assessment and grading, resources, learning objectives and outcomes, and legal and administrative information. Further, it is viewed as a contract between student and professor that is accountable and transparent. In short, the syllabus helps to create a structured and organized learning environment, facilitating effective communication and expectations between instructors and students.

Dr. tavis d. julesDr. tavis d. julesWhile the raison d’etre of the syllabi has gone unchanged, aspects of society have evolved, and we find ourselves in the middle of a racial awakening since 2013 and the rise of the global Black Lives Matter Movement. The legislative ramblings in Florida and other states seeking to remove Black history from the curriculum and revise Black history should give us pause about what historical information students will enter university with. As such, this global movement has forced us to revisit what and how topics and issues are taught in Pre-K-12 and higher education courses; as such, it has forced us to confront the sources of white supremacy, intolerance, and anti-Blackness and hate based on race and ethnicity. Within this context, we need to think/rethink about the purpose of the syllabus and how we can decolonize it. Decolonization is not a metaphor or some form of whitewashing, tokenism, or fetishization but rather is a concrete and structural process that should be undertaken to address and challenge colonial perspectives, biases, and power structures in education. This involves (re)evaluating and (re)shaping multiple aspects of education to create a more inclusive, diverse, and equitable learning environment. How do we do this? In what follows, we discuss a minimum of seven movements that must be considered in decolonizing our syllabus.

The first move is to begin by addressing colonialism and how it has shaped the structure of the syllabus today. If we view colonialism as an “historical and ongoing global project where settlers continue to occupy land, dictate social, political, and economic systems, and exploit Indigenous people and their resources” (Belfi & Sandiford), then, decolonization is the process of undoing and redressing the resulting colonizing practices. It is about “cultural, psychological, and economic freedom” (O’Dowd & Heckenberg) for minoritized people to achieve sovereignty -- the right and ability of Indigenous people to practice self-determination over their land, cultures, and political and economic systems. Decolonization is recognizing, examining, and demolishing power structures that carry legacies of racism, imperialism, and colonialism in producing dispositions, knowledge and skills. Within the educational context, this means confronting and challenging the colonizing practices that have influenced education in the past and are still present today. In our role as educators, the decolonization process begins with self-education whereby we begin educating ourselves about the history and impact of colonialism in our field. It is important to note that different types of colonialism are at play in different fields of study at any given time. This means that we need to take the time to reflect and make changes in our research and our course syllabus (through the textbooks, readings, and resources we provide to students) on which Eurocentric or colonial perspectives, biases, and gaps in representation are present. We must also recognize that, given the Western bias to knowledge production and accumulation, we are trained to view Western knowledge as fundamental to our teaching and understanding of modernity. As such, self-education allows us to break away from this mold and consider ways to include a diversity of materials comprising Indigenous, marginalized, and non-Western voices that challenge the domain narratives. For example, this involves assigning and pairing a Western text with a reading of the non-Western critique of that text, theory, paradigm, or discourse. To be clear, we are not saying that one must throw out all Western texts; we are saying there needs to be room for greater diversity in the assigned reading materials. In other words, the texts need to be inclusive — assigning Indigenous or minority writings alone falls short of preparing current and future education professionals to work effectively with minoritized individuals and groups. Instead, an effective approach to decolonizing a syllabus involves not only including these voices, but also demonstrating how one’s discipline both draws from and reinforces colonialism.

Dr. Donna Y. FordDr. Donna Y. FordA part of decolonizing oneself is how we decolonize our language in the classroom and, more specifically, the academic terminology and jargon we use. This move begins by using the language (for example, using ‘enslaved people’ instead of ‘slaves’). Using language in courses dictates the colonial oppression we transmit to our students and how students are then socialized into societal constructs and associated injustice. For example, consider how we use dark to mean bad, evil, and frightening. This negative indoctrination starts early, as demonstration in a children’s book. While this may seem mundane, a deeper introspection reveals that dark meaning ‘negative’ implies that “dark people” are “bad people.” Therefore, we have intentionally or unintentionally shaped our students’ perspectives by socializing them into thinking that Black people are bad. Similarly, when discussing or using new academic terminology and jargon, we want first to define them clearly and then acknowledge the colonial origins of specific terms, concepts, paradigms, and theories within our field. Sometimes, we need to replace inappropriate, culturally offensive terms with more respectful language. We should center on Indigenous and marginalized languages by using original forms of these languages when discussing concepts rooted in their cultures. Placing academic concepts within their historical and cultural contexts helps us avoid Eurocentric bias and the reinforcement of Western supremacy. It is essential to recognize that decolonizing academic terminology is ongoing. Therefore, we need channels that provide feedback.

Our second move is to challenge knowledge construction. This involves thinking about how we construct our learning environments (synchronous, asynchronous, or hybrid) once we have addressed the discrepancies in our reading materials. This move involves questioning how knowledge is constructed, who can construct it, and who benefits from it. Here, we must intentionally incorporate Indigenous knowledge and perspectives relevant to the subject matter to address intersecting forms of oppression, such as race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. We do this to actively engage and critique the enduring legacies of colonialism, erasure, and enslavement, and the current structures that support and hold these legacies. Such a move creates a classroom environment that values diverse voices and perspectives while allowing students to critically analyze colonial histories, power dynamics, and their implications. This can be further augmented by: (a) inviting guest speakers with minoritized identities and diverse backgrounds to share their perspectives and experiences relevant to the topic; (b) using the correct pronouns and respecting how students wish to be labeled; (c) using or adopting inclusive language representing general identity, ethnicity, and diverse background; (c) integrating anti-oppression frameworks into the curriculum; and (e) guiding students in understanding and addressing systemic inequalities and injustices.

Our third move is to pay attention to the media type used (PowerPoint, YouTube, Twitter [now X], TikTok, etc.). Decolonizing educational media means that we challenge established norms and biased media in our courses. This includes paying attention to: (a) how diverse the media content is; (b) how culturally relevant and sensitive it is (by avoiding stereotypes and cultural appropriation); (c) how sensitive the media type is to gender, ethnicity, and cultural identities; and (d) how the media incorporates minoritized and Indigenous perspectives, voices, and views. We need to provide students with the tools to deconstruct media messages. Furthermore, feedback loops must be baked into our teaching practices for students to provide input on the inclusivity and effectiveness of educational media. Therefore, we should regularly assess and update educational media to reflect our evolving understanding of decolonization and inclusivity.

Our fourth move is addressing how to decolonize discussion prompts by incorporating diverse perspectives. Instead of framing discussion questions from a Eurocentric perspective, ask broad questions that consider multiple viewpoints, including those of Indigenous, marginalized, and non-Western communities. Here, the goal is to challenge Eurocentric assumptions and biases often unconsciously embedded in discussion prompts. Discussion prompts should also highlight underrepresented voices and examine why they are missing and what contributions they can make once they are added. We can also prepare discussion prompts with an intersectional angle that places identities, such as race, gender, class, and sexuality, at the forefront of analyzing complex issues. Discussion prompts can be reframed using alternative narratives that challenge colonial historical perspectives so that it allows students to be reflective and critical of their — and our — biases and privileges as delineated by Peggy McIntosh. Finally, in asking students to take ownership of their learning, we suggest providing feedback loops that allow students to provide input on discussion prompts.

Our fifth move is decolonizing experiential learning or field placement. This movement requires co-designing and co-implementing experiential learning opportunities with different community-based partners. We need to ensure that the communities that our students work in are legitimate partners who have agency and control over the experiences. It calls for discernment and reflection on the part of students to critically reflect on the experience from a decolonial lens by examining: (a) the power dynamics; (b) colonial legacies; and (c) the impact of their interactions on communities. Professors will need to train their students in cultural competency and sensitivity so that students understand and respect diverse cultural norms and practices. Students must understand how to ethically engage in research (do no harm) and practice while respecting traditional knowledge forms. For example, faculty should focus on land-based learning that connects students to the land and Indigenous knowledge systems where possible. Relatedly is the need for faculty to focus on labor acknowledgement which recognizes slavery and enslaved people. This teaches students the unwavering importance of giving back to the communities that they engage with. Our experiential learning or field placement assessments should also be decolonized (see above for examples) to avoid drive-by teaching.

Our sixth move involves focusing on the necessary legal instruments that are part of the syllabus, including but not limited to assessments and institutional policies. While we have free rein over course assessments, we should seek to make them more fair and just. Test biases must be discussed and avoided, as finally acknowledged by the American Psychological Association in 2021. In revising and rethinking how students are evaluated, we must make them equitable, inclusive, and sensitive. These involve moving away from standardized examinations, quizzes, and closed book essays toward group projects, open book assessments, presentations, portfolios, oral examinations, multimedia presentations, and other formats that may better align with diverse learning styles and experiences. These alternatives permit students to foster a more profound engagement and connection to the material while allowing them to choose assessment topics or projects that are culturally relevant to them and their communities. A second decolonized assessment technique is giving students flexibility in deadlines where possible. This recognizes that students are diverse learners with differentiated backgrounds that must be accommodated (e.g., chronicity). Similarly, educators become aware of the impact of colonialism on grading practices and strive for fairness and equity. We must strive to work within our institutional settings to ensure that the legal syllabus terminology (i.e., university policies and procedures) as presented is also decolonized. This involves ensuring that the language is incursive, equitable, and fair. Today, many universities have a land or territory acknowledgment statement that recognizes the Indigenous peoples and their connection to the land on which the university is located. It should be placed in the syllabus or as an addendum under university policies. This section should also include a diversity and inclusion statement that underscores the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusion. The access and accommodation statement should clearly outline the university’s policies and procedures regarding students with disabilities. The university’s alternative assessment options and statements around grade appeals and academic integrity should be communicated in this section. In listing and making these different policies, the university is showing its commitment to addressing historical injustices and fostering an inclusive educational environment that respects diverse perspectives and cultures. Decolonial institutional policies should strive to create a learning environment of respect where diverse voices and experiences are heard and celebrated.

Our final move is decolonizing the course description and the aesthetics of the syllabus. We must recognize that traditional academic structures have often perpetuated colonial narratives, biases, and exclusions. Our mission in educating the next generation is to dismantle these barriers and center Indigenous, marginalized, and non-Western perspectives in our study. As such, our course description needs to recognize and challenge historical injustices, colonial legacies, and systemic inequalities while fostering a deep understanding of how they have shaped our world. In other words, decolonizing a course description involves crafting a narrative that reflects a commitment to inclusivity, equity, and cultural sensitivity while acknowledging the historical and cultural context of the subject matter. Accordingly, we must seek to decolonize the aesthetics of the syllabus. This entails the profound reimagining of its visual elements and design choices to align with the principles of equity, inclusivity, and cultural sensitivity. It requires creating an intentional design that first seeks to challenge and transcend historical norms while fostering an environment where every student feels valued and represented. Educators must select images, graphics, and illustrations that authentically represent the diversity of cultures, backgrounds, and experiences within the learning community. For example, cultures have different meanings for  and reactions to color; thus, a harmonious, culturally sensitive color scheme should be chosen, and attention should be paid to the potential cultural associations of different colors. Specifically: (a) care should be given to avoiding cultural appropriation, ensuring that cultural symbols and artwork are respectful and contextually relevant; (b) the design layout should be immaculate and user-friendly, facilitating the seamless navigation of course content while respecting the principle that aesthetics should not overshadow the educational purpose; (c) the language used in headings, titles, and captions should be inclusive and respectful of gender identity, ethnicity, and cultural diversity; and (d) the syllabus is accessible to those with disabilities.

In summary, decolonizing the syllabus is a continuous, self-reflective, and transformation journey. It is about working toward a more inclusive and equitable future, where the lessons of the past guide us toward a more just and harmonious world. As we change the intersubject relationship, the seven movements identified above will reform the structural, systemic, and institutional apparatuses of colonialism. Decolonizing the system means turning the structures of white supremacy upside down by changing the institutions and structures perpetuating colonialism.   

Dr. tavis d. jules is a professor of cultural & educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago.

Dr. Donna Y. Ford is a distinguished professor at The Ohio State University.

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