#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.

Include Readings By, About, And For Women On Your New Syllabus

End Patriarchy by Charlotte Cooper

Photo by Charlotte Cooper

I have lots of thoughts about Historiann’s ( recent essay, “A woman’s work is never done, part II: and even when it is, it’s not on the syllabus.”  I agree with the argument — that pieces by and about women are underrepresented on syllabi in college-level courses.  I also appreciate the suggestions provided to counter this unintentional but systematic erasure of women on instructors’ syllabi, and even in their peer-reviewed publications.  Go read Historiann’s essay first; here is the link again.

I say that I have lots of thoughts because I slipped into a Twitter rant about syllabus preparation, impostor syndrome, and social justice after sharing Historiann’s essay early this morning.  I decided these many thoughts warranted a blog post.

With each new course that I prepare, that dreaded voice of self-doubt — a symptom of impostor syndrome — gets on my internal microphone, distracting me as I develop the syllabus.  As part of the broader struggle I have with the pressure to conform (or not) to the academic status quo, I face the real temptation to teach what everyone else teaches.  I have a tendency to start syllabus preparation by downloading every syllabus on the course’s focus (and some only somewhat relevant, as well); I may even email colleagues for copies of their syllabi if they are comfortable sharing them.  (The American Sociological Association’s TRAILS archive of peer-reviewed syllabi is a wonderful tool.)  But, then, I am overloaded with data.  So, I try to hone in on repeated topics and readings.  “Ah, ok, so covering [fill in the blank] seems expected for this course.”  This approach may be a good “training wheels” way to design a course that is far outside of your expertise and/or for graduate students who are still learning their field.

However, I have learned the hard way that conforming to what seems to be the norm for that subfield — creating the syllabus I believe abstract others would approve of — creates for a miserable course.  It is boring, leaving me few opportunities to teach the things about which I am passionate.  It leaves me fumbling to teach topics I know nothing about; sometimes, it shows, and students call my expertise and competence into question on course evaluations.  (Sadly, this only sets in motion a cycle of feeling like an impostor.  “Why did I think I could teach this class in the first place?”)  And, I do my students a disservice by teaching the little more I know about the subject than they do, rather than exposing them to topics that I know well and care deeply about.  It’s just a mistake all around, makes for a miserable course with crappy student evaluations, and only reinforces my self-doubt.

So, in 2014, I first wrote a blog to encourage fellow instructors to silence the voice of self-doubt and impostorism and, instead, center the voice of authenticity, originality, and passion in designing a new course.  I have learned that I should be teaching what I know and care about rather than following what everyone else does.  I was hired for this position because of my expertise and unique perspective, and asked or allowed to teach X course for those same reasons.  (That is, unless it is one of those rare times when the department is in a bind and has to ask faculty to teach something outside of their expertise.)  So, allowing fear to steer me away from my unique approach makes no sense.  An authentic approach to teaching is more fun for my students and me.  And, it is crucial for challenging the academic status quo.  Conforming to what every one else does may actually be contributing to the systemic erasure of oppressed communities and controversial topics.  The world around us changes, and we must keep up with it; we do our students a disservice by letting tried and true approaches to teaching dictate how we continue to teach and what we teach well into the future.

So, Historiann’s plea for gender inclusion in course syllabi resonates with thoughts I have wrestled with for some time.  As a mere matter of science, it is shameful that we are having to convince our colleagues that they should take the time to include works by and about women on their syllabi.  Excluding women — whether knowningly or unknowingly — is bad science; you can’t name a single field or discipline that is entirely devoid of women scholars and scholarship on women, not even the fields that are dominated by men.  So, if your default approach to syllabus preparation yields lots of pieces by and about men, you’re doing it wrong — and you probably need to assess where this sexist bias is coming from.  It may just be a matter of laziness and comfort — that you don’t want to take the extra time to track down women authors (as though they are hard to find) or to read pieces you haven’t read a million times before and thus keep assigning to save time.  Whatever your personal decision-making process, you may very well be contributing to the systemic invisibility of women in the academy.  If you’re not proactively including women, you are part of academia’s patriarchy problem.

I suspect that some want to take a feminist approach to designing and teaching their courses — here, using feminism in the most moderate terms, of seeing women as people (too) — but, worry about a backlash from students in their formal course evaluations, on sites like RateMyProfessor.com, and maybe even being challenged in class and/or by email.  You’re probably a privileged white heterosexual cis dude currently without disabilities if these are not concerns you have on a regular basis.  These are realistic worries for marginalized faculty, especially those who have the audacity (channeling conservative privileged students here) to teach about their marginalized community.  I share this worry, which is why conformity has been so tempting as my shield — the suits, the delaying of new piercings and tattoos, the fretting over my blogging, the politically tepid syllabi, and so forth.

I’ve got a few responses to these concerns, the first and most pessimistic being that you’ll face backlash no matter what (so, fuck it — teach to your feminist heart’s content).  I acknowledge that this is hard, and encourage you to only push students when you feel ready and have the capacity and support available to weather their (potential) backlash.  But, we only exacerbate the problem of sexism in academia if we repeatedly run to conformity out of fear.  And, I want to remind you that our job is to educate students, which sometimes includes making them uncomfortable; we do them and society writ large a disservice if we only tell them what they (think they) want to hear.  I would say we do our marginalized students even more harm by caving to privileged students’ demand for the expected — biased content that excludes women and centers men’s voices and writing.  They aren’t seeing themselves, hearing people like themselves, and are losing out on having their consciousnesses raised.  I can’t help but wonder why the majority of college-educated white women voted for a known rapist over a woman for US president; yes, their racism played a role — something that also should be better addressed in the classroom — but it scares me that they weren’t moved by a feminist consciousness to vote in a way that would advance their status rather than set them back by a century.  But, I digress…

I imagine that another reason some instructors will hesitate to intentionally insure the inclusion of women on their course syllabi is being turned off by what seems like an effort to push a feminist agenda.  Maybe you’re in the STEM fields and social issues like gender equality seem less relevant to your subject.  Or, you feel you’re just teaching to educate, not to indoctrinate.  But, as I’ve already said, contributing to the broader pattern of centering men’s voices over women’s in your courses is bad science and pedagogy.  You are perhaps failing to apply a critical lens to what pieces are seen as fundamental to your field, to what pieces are considered “classic” texts, to which authors and what topics are published in the top journals of your field, and to whom is awarded grants to carry out their research.  You may not want to advance the political project of feminism by taking the time to include pieces by, about, and for women on your syllabus; but, in doing so, you are actually advancing the political project of patriarchy.  You can’t me neutral on the issue of gender equity; either you are intentionally promoting the work of women, or you are complicit in their invisibility.  What will you chose?  (It had better be feminism, damnit.)

So, I leave you with Historiann’s request: take the time to include scholarship by, about, and for women on your course syllabi.  Failing to do so is bad science, bad for our students and our society, and only perpetuates sexism.