#TransingHigherEdSyllabus: Building Community Through A Syllabus

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Dr. Z Nicolazzo is an assistant professor in the adult and higher education program and faculty associate in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. You can follow Z on Twitter at @trans_killjoy as well as on hir website (www.znicolazzo.weebly.com).

Building Community Through A Syllabus

I am currently one of the few openly trans* tenure-track professors in my field of higher education and student affairs, and I recently published a book, Trans* in College: Transgender Students’ Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. My visibility and expertise on trans* issues in higher education has brought about frequent questions from other people that often feel like a never-ending loop:

“How can I show love to the trans* community?”

“What should I read to learn about trans* people?”

“Can you give me resources about trans* people so I can learn more?”

At best, these questions are extremely naïve. Clearly, trans* people have been present throughout postsecondary education for decades. For example, trans* archivist and activist Reina Gossett found photos of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson — two trans* women of color — involved in a 1970 protest on behalf of gay students’ rights at New York University. And if trans* people have been in and around postsecondary education, one can bet we have been telling our stories for just as long, too.

At worst, however, the above questions serve as manifestations of the ongoing trans* oppression present throughout American society. What I mean is that the continued ignorance of trans* people, communities and knowledges underscores the ways in which cisgender (i.e., nontrans*) people do not (have to) think about gender due to their gender-based privilege.

Exposing Epistemological Trans* Oppression in Higher Education

Several educational scholars have discussed how epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is itself steeped in systemic racism. Specifically, work by Lori D. Patton and James Joseph Scheurich and Michelle D. Young points out how this occurs, referring to the phenomenon as “epistemological racism.”

Building on their work, I have termed the continuing erasure of trans* knowledges in higher education epistemological trans* oppression. The very asking of what one should read to learn about trans* people underscores the ongoing presence of a world in which the questioner does not feel the need to previously have known about trans* people. Such awareness is a nice add-on, but otherwise not considered central or primary in academe.

In addition, when cisgender people ask these questions, it puts trans* people in a difficult position. We must be willing to have our labor and time continually exploited by (presumably well-meaning) cisgender people or risk being positioned as the “angry trans* person” when we say we will not do work that cisgender people should rightly do.

For many of us, this choice is far from an easy one, as we are in precarious positions of education and/or employment. Indeed, the pull to be seen as “nice” and “helpful,” particularly through the rhetoric of being “collegial” or “professional,” is felt by many of us, including: trans* students who need recommendations for jobs and/or advanced studies, early-career trans* academics seeking tenure-stream positions, and trans* staff who have to worry about performance evaluations as a part of the increasing audit culture in higher education.

It is against this backdrop that I recently decided to curate the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus. I felt inspired by the recent practice of marginalized people creating publicly accessible social justice-oriented syllabi, such as the #CharlestonSyllabus, #FergusonSyllabus and #PulseOrlandoSyllabus, among others. So I decided to construct a similar syllabus geared toward promoting the continuing work that is being done regarding trans* populations in higher education.

One goal of the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus was to show how trans* people have always been a part of higher education and how, as a result, we have always been pushing for more gender-expansive environments and futures. Another goal was to provide an educational tool for cisgender people about trans* people. Thus, the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus acts as a public response to the questions that I mentioned at the outset of this essay. In so doing, I was hoping my/our collective labor — detailed through the syllabus — would save me/us from having to confront these questions time and again. The syllabus continues to grow (email me at znicolazzo@niu.edu to add new materials), and is an important resource for faculty members, students and staff members to use in their work.

However, to say the syllabus was purely a response to the oppressive illogics that frame the daily world in which trans* and gender-nonconforming people like myself exist is to miss the fuller picture. Yes, I made the decision to invest time, energy and labor into a project that would require continual upkeep as a way to spare my trans* kin and myself significant time and labor in the future. However, I also made the decision to curate the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus as a way to be with and among my trans* kin and our accomplices. (You can follow the Twitter thread here.) For me, it was a return to my roots as a trans* person — and a way that I have continually reminded myself of the sheer brilliance that has provided me the space, time and thinking to be who I am today as a trans* femme in the academy.

Finding Community Through Trans* Scholars(hip)

As I have written about in both a book chapter about my doctoral studies and my book, Trans* in College, I first came to enter my trans* community through reading trans* scholars(hip). I was living in Arizona at a time when being a member of any marginalized community felt increasingly dangerous, and I was working in a job — advising fraternity and sorority students — in which I felt trapped. Each day that I got dressed for work, I felt extreme dysphoria and would count down the hours and minutes until I could get back to my studio apartment and explore my gender further. Much of this exploration occurred through devouring trans* literature, especially Julia Serano’s Whipping Girl, various essays by Dean Spade, Dylan Scholinski’s The Last Time I Wore a Dress and Susan Stryker’s Transgender History.

Drafting the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus was, for me, a return to my own beginnings of entering a trans* community. The more time I spent piecing together the recent explosion of trans* scholarship in higher education and student affairs, the more I felt alive and whole. The more I stitched together a set of readings, artists, activists, organizations, films and video clips that are largely — though not exclusively — created by queer and trans* people, the more I was reminded of the absolutely stunning community to which I have the privilege to belong. My mind traveled back to my small patio outside of my studio apartment in Tucson, where I would spend my evenings smoking, reading and coming into my own trans* awakening as the desert sun set behind the mountains.

I have been completely astounded at how far the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus has already traveled. I am indebted to the trans* women of color who fought — and continue to fight — for my existence as a trans* femme to be possible. I am also deeply grateful for a small group of queer, trans* and accomplice kin who conspired with me in the making of the syllabus, notably Jana Clark, T. J. Jourian, D-L Stewart and Katherine Wheatle.

And really, more than counteracting ongoing daily trans* oppression, my curating the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus has — and will continue to be — about inviting trans,* queer and accomplice scholars into a vibrant, vital and deeply moving community, one that, many years ago, helped me get on the path to finding myself. Perhaps the syllabus can even do the same for other people, be they in or beyond the academy.