When you think about the syllabus, you think about policies, contracts, and expectations. The syllabus is a fiction that governs the classroom space, establishing values and expectations for who can be in that space and what that space should look like. Syllabi define what is possible. And, for a long time, the syllabus has remained inside the institutional spaces of the university.
As I’ve imagined my own syllabi for the fall, I’ve found the most urgent and radical syllabus-making is taking place elsewhere.
The syllabus has found new and vital form as part of a collaborative, largely digital response to seismic cultural and political events.
Scholars, students, and readers alike turned to Twitter after the events of Ferguson, Charleston, the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, and, most recently, the release of Beyonce’s visual album Lemonade.
They started as social media hashtags, collecting shared references and referrals. Now these are internet syllabi in various forms: Frank Leon Roberts’ Black Lives Matter syllabus is a public version of the familiar format, the #CharlestonSyllabus was quickly organized by African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) and has become a formal book. Nichole Perkins compiled a reading list for Fusion. Candice Benbow published a digital compilation of the sources gathered by her Twitter hashtag #lemonadesyllabus.
Each of these syllabi were born in the unruly spaces of the internet.
It’s not surprising that much of this syllabus-making centers on black lives, black culture, and black communities. Syllabi are a practical shorthand for what is and isn’t canonical, the texts we rely on to shape our sense of self, society, and history and establish whose voices who count in shaping those narratives.
Efforts to diversify the canons have “let in” writers and thinkers of color. Still, gatekeepers (the authors of syllabi) too often operate from comfortable default positions and perspectives. Diversity, Anna Holmes suggests, has become “an end – a box to check off – rather than a starting point from which a more integrated, textured world is brought into being.”
Unmoored from the rhythms, pressures, and spaces of academia, these syllabi embody the best of the genre. They embody new ways of organizing knowledge while commenting the limitations of their form. The popular syllabus allows us to to think through what we circulate as “knowledge” and the worlds we build in the circulating.
We create syllabi for the art and aspects of life that seem the most difficult to comprehend. Operating outside institutional spaces, these syllabi build different kinds of community spaces, spaces that extend outward and beyond the initial experience or encounter with racism and violence (#FergusonSyllabus and #CharlestonSyllabus) or visionary art (#LemonadeSyllabus). These are spaces with porous boundaries.
In “The Art of Cruelty,” Maggie Nelson describes an alternate pedagogy of space. Space, Nelson reminds us, works differently than models of depth: “space offers a horizontal spreading, the possibility of expansion into dimensions no one yet thoroughly understands.”
These spontaneous digital syllabi do a different, horizontal kind of pedagogical work. They bridge the gap between scholars and readers; they build a new kind of public. As Chad Williams, originator of the #CharlestonSyllabus, writes, this syllabus “is more than a list. It is a community of people committed to critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation.”
What the #CharlestonSyllabus, #FergusonSyllabus, and now the #LemonadeSyllabus remind us is that learning itself is unruly. It’s tangential and collaborative, always operating in “dimensions no one yet thoroughly understands.”
Syllabi build possibilities; they build worlds. This new hybrid syllabus offers a way to build better ones.
Katie Dyson is a PhD candidate in English at Loyola University Chicago. When she’s not teaching or working on her dissertation, she reads the internet.