The Syllabus is Political

Photo by Susan Q Yin on Unsplash

Around the end of October, in the lead up to Halloween, I like to assign my introduction to cultural anthropology course a Jean and John Comaroff article about occult economies. I build it into an entire lecture about monster myths and the role of stories in making sense of rupture and crisis. This was not an original lesson; I learned to do this in the same way we all learned to teach “Body Ritual among the Nacirema” (Miner 1956) from watching the professor in my very first Teaching Assistantship (TAship). And while it wasn’t the most accessible article on the syllabus, students responded incredibly well to the whole endeavor.

I enjoyed teaching that class. But, in light of recent events, I am removing that article from my syllabus.

The Politics of the Syllabus

Conversations in our discipline about citational practices and politics are not new. Knowledge production is an inherently political process—anthropologists have known this since the reflexive turn. More recently, Christen A. Smith and the Cite Black Women Collective have called for a re-examination of our citational practices and the voices they elevate and/or dismiss. These calls underscore the function of citation. Citing is not merely how we give credit, it is how “we determine how we publicly map the genealogy of our thoughts and inspiration. They are much more than mere mentions; they determine how our disciplines both value our work and evaluate us as scholars. Citations determine whether we are perceived as academic subjects or objects” (Smith and Garrett-Scott 2021, 20). We need to think critically about to whom we accord value—and what valuing known and accused abusers says about us and our discipline.

The syllabus is an important part of these conversations. The syllabus is where we first learn what we ought to know, it is where the canon is constructed and reaffirmed every term. The readings we assign our students are, realistically, the works they will cite in their essays. They are the works, theories, and ideas they will learn from and about. And for many of our undergraduate students, they may also be their only exposure to anthropology.

I am, therefore, inviting you to critically examine your syllabi. Building a syllabus is an exercise in curation—we always have to cut something. There is never enough time to teach everything we would like, not enough hours in the day to assign any more readings. Those curatorial decision are always already political; this is something that has been made even more clear in the wake of social and political movements like Black Lives Matter and the backlash against critical race theory in the United States. The syllabus is political, and what is at stake is not just the state of knowledge production but the wellbeing of our students and ourselves.

An Active Syllabus Reflection

As you examine your own syllabi, here are some questions to reflect on:

What do I know about the context in which this work was done/published?

Do the circumstances under which this work was produced undermine its arguments or contributions? Are there conflicts that need to be disclosed or information that my students need for context or a full picture? For example, when I teach Evans-Pritchard’s work on witchcraft, we have a discussion about the ways that Evans-Pritchard and other anthropologists benefitted from and contributed to colonial rule. What conversations need to frame the work you are assigning?

What do I know about the scholar who produced it?

We don’t need to have a referendum on a scholar’s character every time we assign a reading. But we can and should ask questions about the ethics of a scholar’s conduct. If an ethnographer engaged in unethical research methods or misrepresented data in publication, you would likely hesitate to assign their work. You might question that scholar’s credibility. We can and should hold our colleagues’ behavior in the classroom, conference room, corridor, and department to the same level of ethical scrutiny. We can’t be expected to be omniscient, but when we are aware of unethical conduct, we ought to pause and re-evaluate the works we are assigning.

Do I need to include this reading? If I do, what message am I sending?

How might the inclusion of certain readings be interpreted by your students? If we include the work of accused or known abusers in our syllabi, will our students interpret that as condoning their behavior? Will they interpret it as a signal that this behavior is acceptable or will be tolerated in our classroom? Perhaps it will signal to them that we will not support them if they disclose or report abusive behavior to us. Or that they should not disclose or report abusive behavior at all.

What are my students learning about the discipline of anthropology from this work?

Take a step back and imagine an undergraduate student taking this course as an elective—what will they come away from your course knowing about the discipline? Will they know about anthropology's ethical and political commitments? About radical and emancipatory work? Or will they think that anthropology reifies existing structures of power, that it is unconcerned with the lives of the disempowered, or is disconnected from its political implications?

These are questions I’m thinking through myself. Recently, I designed a syllabus for a course on the anthropology of gender-based and sexual violence. In the wake of the Open Letter in support of Comaroff from 38 Harvard faculty-members (many of whom have since retracted but have not apologized), I have been troubled by the inclusion of one of its signatories in that syllabus. How could I assign this foundational staple on structural violence—which I myself have cited in my own work on sexual violence—knowing that its author had enabled the very structural violence that he helped us to name and expose? The truth is that I don’t think I can, not without compromising my commitments to survivors of sexual violence. Not without compromising my commitments to my students.

Choosing not to ask our students to read certain work is not the same as pretending it does not exist. It is not a “cancellation.” We can still acknowledge and speak about the work of problematic figures in the discipline without assigning their work or praising them. Many of us already do this when we talk about the colonial and racist works that founded this discipline. It would be disingenuous to pretend that these figures were not integral parts of the discipline or that entire generations of anthropologists and their work were not influenced by their contributions. But we can acknowledge the Comaroffs' place and role in shaping contemporary anthropology without assigning their work and according them more value.

We think about the ethics of representation in our writing all the time. We have to. I am asking you now to turn that critical eye to the classroom. Because the act of building a syllabus, of omitting some works and elevating others, is an act of representation. It is a representation of the discipline and of who and what we value.

Towards Trauma-Informed Teaching

Many of us—teaching assistants, contingent or adjunct faculty—do not have control over what we teach. Junior scholars may feel pressure to teach the canon without question or may teach syllabi that are already set. That is a reality of the academy. Another reality is that our students are impacted by structural violence all of the time, in ways we may never know anything about. Statistically, between 19-27% of female undergraduate students and 6-8% of male undergraduate students experience sexual violence during the course of their education. These statistics are higher for LGBTQIA2S+ students, disabled students, and racialized and Indigenous students. That’s just sexual violence—these numbers do not account for the racist, transphobic, ableist, gendered, and homophobic forms of violence our students encounter on a regular basis.

Given all of this, I encourage you to explore a trauma-informed approach to teaching and to integrate it into your teaching practices. Trauma-informed teaching recognizes the impact of trauma on individuals and communities, and it integrates that knowledge to promote healing and prevent re-traumatization. That does not mean that we act as counselors or try to assess the individual trauma histories of our students, but that we recognize the likelihood that trauma is present in our classrooms and impacts the learning environment. This approach emphasizes the following principles and strategies:

  • Physical, Emotional, Social, and Academic Safety: Make efforts to create a space that supports students needs for safety and respect during the learning process. Examples: Providing content warnings before discussing sensitive subject matter, re-examining your course structure and expectations.
  • Trustworthiness and Transparency: Build trust and transparency through making your expectations clear, being consistent and creating class routines, maintaining appropriate boundaries with your students, and being honest with your students. Examples: Articulating clear class policies and applying them consistently, situating and contextualizing problematic scholarship and encouraging critical engagement with it.
  • Support and Connection: Connect your students with the resources they need to succeed academically, personally, and professionally. Examples: Connecting students with relevant campus resources (Title IX office or sexual violence center, counselling or support services) and academic supports (accommodations offices, writing centers, etc.).
  • Collaboration and Mutuality: Create opportunities for students to provide input, receive feedback, and share power/make decisions. Create a space where your students feel comfortable participating in class discussions or exploring difficult subject matter. Uplift the voices of scholars and students from marginalized communities. Examples: Emphasizing and facilitating student-led discussion and activities, creating opportunities for students to share their own insights about abuse of power and other difficult topics.
  • Empowerment, Voice, and Choice: Create a learning space where students are empowered to make choices and develop confidence and competence. Examples: Building in choices where possible (paper topics and formats, seating arrangements, etc.), giving students multiple modes and opportunities to speak (small groups, large groups, discussion boards/online posts, etc.).
  • Social Justice: Create a learning space in which all class members feel respected and are aware of and responsive to forms of privilege and oppression. Examples: Using correct pronouns and addressing microaggressions in class.
  • Resilience, Growth, & Change: Normalize providing constructive feedback and fostering discussion that helps students to grow and change. Examples: Facilitating peer feedback, conveying optimism and rewarding success, soliciting feedback from students to improve your course.

These principles focus on how we can better our students’ learning experiences. But instructors are also impacted by trauma, and we need to be mindful of the ways in which we are impacted by living through protracted crisis, teaching triggering material, and the multitude of other ways we come into contact with violence and trauma in our work. So I will add:

  • Don’t go it alone: Talk and brainstorm with other instructors in your networks; have a sounding board as you work through complex issues. Trauma-informed pedagogy is a collaborative process and you don’t need to have all the answers on your own. Make sure that you have personal and professional support networks that you can turn to if/when you need. Be aware of what supports, if any, your campus offers for staff (i.e. counselling or mental health services, additional trainings and resources, etc.) or that associations and community groups might offer.

I am removing that Comaroff article from my syllabus—it does not need to be included, its presence harms me as a survivor of academic sexual violence, and its presence may further harm my students. In all likelihood, this will not be the last case like this. But, for now, this is how I am mitigating and reducing harm. I invite you to do the same.

Resources for Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning

Janice Carello (Edinboro University of Pennsylvania) offers a wealth of resources on her blog Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning, including an annotated example of a trauma-informed syllabus.

Mays Imad’s (Pima Community College) webinar on Trauma Informed Teaching and Learning.

Tea for Teaching Episode 131: Trauma-Informed Pedagogy with Karen Costa.

Janice Carello’s (Edinboro University of Pennsylvania) webinar Trauma Informed Teaching and Learning in Times of Crisis.

Shannon Davidson’s (Education Northwest) Guide “Trauma-Informed Practices for Postsecondary Education: A Guide”

Kara Newhouse’s (KQED) article “Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning”

Mathew Portell’s (Edutopia) article “Understanding Trauma-Informed Education”

Alex Shevrin Venet’s (Edutopia) article “8 Ways to Support Students Who Experience Trauma”

Emelina Minero’s (Edutopia) article “When Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too”

If you have a resource for Trauma-Informed Pedagogy you would like to see added to this list, email me at [email protected].


Miner, Horace. 1956. “Body Ritual among the Nacirema.” American Anthropologist 58, no. 3: 503-507.

Smith, Christen A. and Dominique Garrett-Scott. 2021. “‘We are not named’: Black women and the politics of citation in anthropology.” Feminist Anthropology 2, no. 1: 18–37.