It’s back to school time. I love this time of year. Late summer minutes are longer and shorter all at once. Each year, I hang on to the last tendrils of August, the earlier sunsets and cooler nights quickened in my romanticism. This is when I simultaneously dread and cannot wait for the first class sessions. I am a teacher; I get nervous every year. I suppose I’ll stop teaching when the start of classes inspires nothing more than a yawn.
In recent years, these weeks have also brought with them more and more requests to view the syllabi of the courses I’m teaching. Sometimes these requests come from students trying to juggle the costs of textbooks with the other crushing costs of privatized higher education (Kēhaulani, personal communication, 2016). Sometimes, colleagues and peers want to share and swap designs of learning spaces. With increasing regularity, syllabi are requested by university administration so that each syllabus is on view for prospective students, in some cases the people who are paying their tuition bills, and perhaps even the higher ups who have a say in the tuition rates. These requests accentuate the core problem with the idea that we can ever delineate learning for a diverse collective before it has even become a collective. But, along with these core issues comes a refreshed opportunity to be stewards of learning rather than overseers of outcomes.
As a scholar of education, it is my fortunate vocation to think deeply and continuously about learning. As a sociologist, I must contend, also continuously, with what affords and constrains learning in a society that stratifies and sequesters opportunity and wellness. This sequestering is only accentuated under market logics, animated in nonsense like ‘shopping weeks’ for courses. Shopping and consumerism are themselves diametrically opposed to the spirit of learning but they are right in line with the caveat emptor impulses of racist capitalism. Learning is, fundamentally, a relational activity but all relationships are not created equitably in a society that reserves subsidized life for some through the limitations on others. While learning is often crudely referred to as the turning on of a light bulb in a single person’s mind, it is more fundamentally a complex act of change, dangerous and unsettling. Sometimes these ruptures and realignment of selves even occur within the longstanding settler racist structures of formal education. It’s pretty miraculous when this learning happens, when you consider the far from ‘safe’ contexts of formal education.
When universities expect syllabi to be created and unilaterally, inflexibly delivered through a paid course, they, and we as their employees, undermine the nature of learning. Learning, or more accurately put, the parameters for learning, can be designed in advance, but learning is inter-relational, entangled with context and history, and anything but predictable. Parameters for learning must be, by any definition of learning worth a grain of salt, permeable and flexible. In all of my courses, I plan out solidly, at most, a month at a time for the course topics and accompanying readings. While I have, from experience and my own sets of ethics as an activist scholar, distinct wishes for student learning and ideas about where I’d like to see the course go, I cannot know its precise path until learners and learning are in the specific political, cultural mix. This is where the words, “subject to change,” become vital. The map of the full term is in each syllabus, but the words ‘subject to change’ are prominent. This phrase is not a cop-out; it is not reflective of a paucity of foresight. On the contrary, it is a potent signifier of an allegiance to learning as a collective, contested, and mutually constituted praxis. In a context in which we regularly obscure the colonial function of claims of objectivity, ‘subject to change,’ can be erroneously construed to convey lack of expertise but it is, for me, a much-needed reminder to continually ask who are these learners and what is worth our precious, collective time together.
Our casualness with the power of syllabi and pedagogy is not merely confined to bureaucratic oversight; it is cultural practice. When educators ask each other for our syllabi but don’t engage in conversation about the thinking, desires, and worries that aren’t contained in increasingly contractual language, we miss an opportunity to steward learning. We miss a fleeting chance to deprivatize our pedagogy. When we ask for syllabi without a grounding in the racialized, sociopolitical history of knowledge and property rights, we engage in, and, even worse ask others to be complicit in, an illusion of equality that obviates the fundamentally unequal playing ground in schools and society. The nature of knowledge is not that of property, but being able to distinguish knowledge from ownership is also not license to ignore longstanding patterns of whose work is credited, cited, and then rewarded professionally through tenure, salary, and awards. Shoot, some of us even try to write well in our syllabi. These are not mere contracts with swappable and measurable language bits. How dare we treat them as such.
Syllabi are just part of what is encompassed in the heady project of collective knowledge-building. I have been fortunate from the start of my teaching career to enjoy relatively easeful and therefore productive classroom dynamics, but from my first semester of student teaching and to this day, I labor over classroom interactions, replaying moments that challenge me and students. I revel in the creative process of syllabus planning and weekly adjustments. Post-class conversations with me can only ever be about the class session that just ended. Now and then, I wonder why I chose a profession that is so all-consuming, sleeping drastically less when classes are in session. Writer Wayne Rhodes posits that perhaps the profession of education chooses inquisitive minds. Whether it chose me or I keep coming back to it, this productive obsession with teaching and learning makes me savor the moments when I am able to connect well and rigorously with other teachers over the what, how, and why of their decisions. I try to remember, and I know I need reminders because I too breath the air of widget capitalism, that how people have designed their courses is only visible to me in fragments when I read their syllabi from afar.
I am not suggesting that we be stingy with syllabi. On the contrary, I am suggesting a rigorous stewardship of the delicate nature of learning and the wonderful agony of trying to plan for and respond to it. Particularly in the interest of opening up, rather than closing down paths to transformative knowledge, how we design and redesign spaces for learning is nothing short of catalytic. Combustibility demands cautious action.