How do I construct a syllabus? Why do I choose the authors I choose? Why do I choose the texts? Out of all the writers and works of literature, how do I narrow down what I want students to read during a sixteen week semester? Well, today I’m going to talk some about my thought process when constructing my syllabi. I do this, some, when I present syllabi on this site; however, today I want to dive deeper, specifically into how the process of selecting texts for my courses benefits my students as well as myself. For me, this is the key when I am constructing reading lists for my classes.
In Radical Hope, Kevin Gannon argues that teaching is an act of radical hope, “an assertion of faith in a better future in an increasingly uncertain and fraught present.” I’ve always viewed my role in the classroom as one where I prepare students to face the world ahead; however, I have not always, throughout my career, focused on the deep experiential learning that leads to radical hope and the tools necessary to engage with the moment and construct the “better future.” I have fallen into a lot of the same mistakes that Gannon discusses from merely lecturing to students to focusing on surface level items in students’ writing instead of focusing on the deep meaning.
Even though I have failed at points, I have grown over the almost twenty years I have spent in the classroom. That growth has led me to view my role as a teacher differently. Rather than merely having students regurgitate information to me for tests, information that they will forget the second they leave the room, I have shifted my focus to having students become active participants in the learning process through various activities, many of which I have written about before. I’ve done this for a while, in various incarnations, and some activities have, inevitably, gone better than others.
However, merely flipping the classroom is not enough. To assert “faith in a better future” we must be inclusive in the classroom, and that inclusivity involves not just our student makeup and interactions with students. At its core, it begins with the syllabi we create. Gannon says, “Creating and inclusive climate begins even in the innocuous, quotidian choices we make about things such as what textbooks we adopt.” Every semester, this is where I begin, pouring over what books or text selections from anthologies that I want to include in my course. For me, it’s a time consuming process as “the list gets whittled down by paining attention” to a myriad of factors such as critical and pedagogical fit, costs for students, scope, and more.
When I teach American literature survey courses, I always take the time to select texts, usually from an anthology, that will create an inclusive classroom. The first step in doing this, of course, is choosing an inclusive anthology. I painstakingly work to make sure that I incorporate texts from a wide range of ethnicities, religions, regions, gender, and more. Usually, these course average out to about 40%-50% white authors and 50%-60% African American, Arab American, Asian American, and more. Instead of merely teaching the “classics” (whatever those are), I make sure to introduce students to voices they have not heard. I make sure that all of my students hear themselves in the texts we read.
For the past couple of years, I have had the opportunity to teach Multiethnic American Literature classes. As I construct the syllabi for these classes, I purposefully think about what texts and authors to teach. This process includes selecting texts that I am familiar with, of course, but it also includes selecting texts that address topics I am completely unfamiliar with. For example, over the past two years, when I have taught these courses, I have chosen to teach works by Arab or South Asian American authors. I could fill the class with African American authors because those are who I am most familiar with through my research, but I chose to include works by Arab American authors specifically because I am unfamiliar with them.
While choosing texts such as Ayad Akthar’s Disgraced or G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel or Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses allows students to see themselves or to learn about others, I selected these texts, and more, for myself. I selected them because I do not know much about the Arab or South Asian experience in America. I do not know much about the Muslim experience in America. I do not know much about the Palestinian experience. The texts that I choose open my own eyes to the world around me, urging me to assert my “faith in a better future.” They do this by making me learn, by making me face what I do not know, by making me face myself just as my students do.
In thinking about what texts I use in my courses, I think about my own blind spots. I think about my own prejudices. I think about what I do not know. All of this informs my selection process for each course, and I am always upfront with students about my lack of knowledge. If we truly want our courses to be inclusive and to be collaborative, as learning should be, we must be honest with our students. We must be vulnerable and admit that even though we are the person at the front of the class, we do not know everything. We must be honest with students and let them know that we are learning alongside them, and that sometimes that learning may be messy. Sometimes we may fail, but that is ok because when we are honest with our students and ourselves we will be closer to the “better future” we desire.
That is the reason I love teaching. Teaching provides me with the opportunity to constantly learn and grow, something I could do, as well, if I wasn’t teaching. However, preparing for classes causes me to engage with works and topics on a deeper level than merely reading them in my spare time if I had another profession. When I stop having the desire to learn, to continually expand my own knowledge, then I should give up on teaching. I should give up and retire to the confines of my mind where the continual cycle of what I’ve learned over the years recirculates, feeding back into itself. I hope that I never reach that stage because when I teach I work to make a “better future” for not just my students but for myself and my loved ones as well. Making that “better future” involves always being willing to learn and expand our knowledge.
What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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