Last week I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Marcia Chatelain–who is an incredible speaker– give a talk on teaching in the age of #BlackLivesMatter. Dr. Chatelain, who is the brains behind #FergusonSyllabus, spoke to the audience about how she used Twitter to develop a national and international teach-in. Our role in the university is to assess what is going on in the world, make it accessible, and mobilize discussions in communities, she told the audience. Creating the #FergusonSyllabus was a practical and politically engaged call to discuss the events of the shooting of Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. Dr. Chatelain challenged colleagues to talk about the events–and the systemic inequity and racism that made them possible–in their classrooms on the first day of school.
Do you ever find yourself revising your syllabus as you move through the semester? I don’t mean small things like shifting a due date or adding or subtracting a reading. I mean have you ever realized part way through the term that while you are technically teaching what you proposed in reality there is something else, something subversive, something exciting happening that is not on the syllabus?
I have. In fact, I am experiencing this in a class right now.
There is some context: I hadn’t really planned to teach this fall. When classes started our daughter was three months old. And so when the opportunity to teach two courses came up in late August (#precarity) I launched into syllabus writing mode so quickly I might well have looked like a superhero or a bedevilled scribe. As I scrambled to order texts and build online learning sites I also fiddled and fiddled and fiddled with my syllabi. One class in particular was brand new for me: writing in the digital age. After consulting with a number of digital humanities friends and colleagues, attending an online workshop on digital and collaborative teaching (thank you, FemTechNet), and reading an astonishing amount of material in an equally astonishingly short time, I built a syllabus I was proud of. And now I am subverting it.
Here’s what I mean: the syllabus I built is strong. I feel good about it, colleagues who also work in the field were complimentary of it. But what I could’t have expected at the time was the need to work in contemporary issues on the fly. That’s the thing about teaching the contemporary field: things happen as the semester progresses. So, we have worked into our classroom opportunities to close read the performative politics of the election, for example, which in turn has had us thinking through the politics and poetics of the performance of self in everyday digital life, which in turn has become a conversation about the ethics and politics of power in our digital lives.
What we are building, my students and I, is a shadow syllabus.
I first heard the term when I came across Sonya Huber’s wonderful writing where she poetically outlines the intersectional politics and affects that structure any classroom. It was last week, though, that I came across the term again and thought about it in relation to my own present and future classrooms.
The shadow syllabus, she explained, emerged as a tactic for working in how to talk about meaningful and vital current events that may not meet institutional approval. For, as Dr. Chatelain related, in some elementary and high schools teachers were not allowed to talk to their students about the events.
Enter the shadow syllabus.
A shadow syllabus is shrewd. It allows you to meet course and learning objectives while simultaneously working in the contemporary, the political, and, according to my students, the vital. You want to teach students about systemic racism but can’t because you’re under a gag order? No problem. Teach them about housing policy in the municipality in question! You want to teach first year students about the corporatization of learning? Use the university’s mission statement and the twitter feeds of Provosts as texts for close reading. The shadow syllabus emerges as a practical application of Huber’s poetic thinking. And it is, I wager, both a means of working in what the institution does not recognize, and a way to work organically as a class.
While my class and I are not developing a shadow syllabus as a means of working around a gag order, in the way that some of Dr. Chatelain’s colleagues were, we are working with the contemporary field as it happens, and that? That is exciting. It is hard and exciting. It is learning.