Decolonizing the Syllabus

I have had the opportunity of studying in a few different countries (such as the Philippines and Canada). Although there are many differences in the teaching styles and the school systems, there are a few similarities between these countries. One I’ve noticed this year, and one that has been of increasing importance to me, is the lack of diversity in school readings. Since high school, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been assigned a reading written by a person of color. This is a reflection of the fact that our syllabi is often dominated by white voices.


Earlier this year, I came across an Instagram post from writer, educator and artist Yvette DeChavez displaying her artwork with the words “Decolonize Your Syllabus” written across. This piqued my interest and prompted me to look further through her Instagram page and other works. DeChavez regularly posts books written by POC on her social media page and uses literary and academic publications written mostly by POC in her university classes. It didn’t take long for me to figure out the meaning behind the phrase. DeChavez hopes to challenge other educators to have a more diverse selection of writers and scholars in their syllabi. By making her own syllabi diverse, she also hopes to impress upon students that there are POC in academia.


Photo by Yvette DeChavez


This made me curious about my own syllabi. Upon quick investigation and reflection, I noticed that my syllabi was not that diverse. The majority of my assigned readings were written by white people (often male) and almost all of the scholars mentioned in my courses were white. They’ve been using most of these writers for years, going unchanged even when their works are outdated. In an already Eurocentric society and education system, this only does further damage to marginalized groups. It establishes white literary and academic works as the pinnacle of academia, especially when they're often titled as “classics” or the “foundation” of a specific topic. To students who belong to marginalized groups, it can make them feel like they don’t belong in the academia and their voices don’t matter.


Photo by @bantersnaps


While I recognize the importance of the works and teachings of these established academic scholars, I also think it's incredibly important to include academics from different backgrounds. There are several POC in literature and academia who have written great publications and research over the years. Their work doesn’t only deserve to be talked about or used in “ethnic” discourse. Inclusion of their works in syllabi is important when creating an increasingly diverse classroom. Their voices and perspectives matter and should be acknowledged just as much as everyone else.


This semester, I’ve had the joy of having a lecturer who successfully decolonized his syllabus. Although he still uses your typical white writers, he regularly makes the effort to include works by a diverse range of academics in our readings. We’ve had readings from Indigenous writers and POC in our classes, many of whom I’ve never heard of before. Often, I catch myself feeling like I can actually relate to these scholars. Aside from educating, it also allows for a more diverse discourse among students when they learn from diverse writers.


Photo via Pexels


The academic world is vast, filled with several scholars and concepts. Let’s not limit ourselves to the same academics. In a time where society is only getting more diverse and multicultural, diversity in academia becomes even more important. The syllabi should reflect the diverse backgrounds of students in classrooms and lecture halls to facilitate and cultivate learning. Education should teach more than just the importance of diversity, it should also embody it.