With all of the different committee and administrative roles I have had in academia in the past 13 years, I have reviewed a whole LOTTA syllabi. Across multiple institutions and departments, the most dominant and lengthy prose that I have seen on these syllabi revolve around policy:
- if and what you can eat and drink in the room
- when and if you can go out and pee during class
- when and if your mobile devices can be used or seen
- how long your papers must be (with descriptions of their dullness— i.e., western styles of paragraphing, language, etc)
- how to make headings on the page (usually of the bad 8th grade variety)
- what happens if your body or your work is late or absent
- who to call for this and that and when to call them
- who to email for this and that and when to email them
- numbers of all kindsa offices on campus, including the professor’s, and anyone else students can be pushed off on if they have life-difficulties (i.e., leave your personal problems at the door)
- the horrors of plagiarism and the threats of what can happen
- the campus’s cut-and-paste language/legalese around disability (rather than genuine care)
- the department/program’s cut-and-paste list of learning objectives that a small group of faculty have gathered to write, usually for the purposes of assessment rather than a political investigation of what the hell we are teaching and how and why.
This bulleted list of PUREEEE boringness makes you wonder: who would actually want to read this mess? And what are students even learning? And you know what is significantly short? A discussion of the CONTENT STUDENTS ARE LEARNING! In fact, if you look at most syllabi, what students are mostly learning is the particular college’s and the classroom’s disciplining of their body movements. When you do get an actual course description, what you really see is the university’s neoliberalist discourse that appears in the course bulletin— more of a coded doctrine than any kind of readable prose because the course description is always really tight (in terms of words and characters allowed) and confined by the tastes and politics of the mostly white faculty who had to approve it. In fact, if you took a good look at most college syllabi across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any real student learning is happening at all… or that words mean and do anything but CONTROL students’ bodies.
I have never watched a full episode of one of those reality shows featuring doomsday preppers, the over-the-top survivalists who prepare for the end of civilization, nuclear invasion, or natural catastrophe. I am however very familiar with preparing for the inevitable racial targeting that comes with being a woman of color working in educational institutions.
Many people at universities today are thinking critically about the safety of racially marginalized groups on campus and the threats to teaching politically-charged content in this post-election moment. I don’t mean to suggest here that this critical care and thought are widespread though. There are just as many places that move forward— business as usual— with their love affairs with classic Europe, administrivia, departmental parties, and neoliberalist regimes of outcomes assessment. Academics doing the work of questioning and thinking through where we are today, those who commit to pedagogy as something more rigorous than an anemic list of suggestions about teaching tolerance, are a rare gem. It seems to me though that institutional racism has long prepared us for the coming doomsdays on university campuses. The very campus protests related to #BlackLivesMatter showed us students who challenged their administrations to deal with the racism they were facing and not simply dismiss campus-wide white supremacy under the auspices of (for-whites-only) “free speech”? The very history of Black college student protest, dating back to the 1920s, connected off-campus racism with the treatment Black students face on campus. As an undergraduate in 1989, I never walked alone on campus, especially at night, not simply because I was a woman, but a Black woman. As women, we know we are always the potential victims of sexual assault, but as a Black woman, you also know that no one will care or notice when that happens. Black men on campus certainly weren’t any safer; Black masculinity does not offer that. They didn’t travel alone either for fear of the campus police who had no ability to see their bodies as part of the student population. Doomsday was always here.
Right after the announcement of Donald Trump as our next U.S. president, I got on a plane and came to Canada for the National Women’s Studies Association. I enjoy this conference for one reason: I see more women of color/gender-queer folk here than any other professional conference I attend. There are problems like with every other professional organization but at least I like who sits and fights at the table.
This year, I was grateful for the Black and Indigenous women in Canada who let us know at every turn that freedom ain’t up here. You can follow the drinking gourd, Underground Railroad, North Star, Black Moses and then wade in the water all you want: Black folk still ain’t free in Canada. Kim TallBear’s plenary talk was the highlight for me.
Recently, I described a person in a (relative) position of power at a job as a woman with a real slick mouth. This isn’t a compliment. The loaded meanings of this term points to the reality of what a distinct Black Lexicon is and does. Like I have said continually on this blog, Black Language Matters.
Let my elementary and junior high school friends (and mom) tell it, I once had a rather unhealthy infatuation with the legend and genius we have come to call Prince. I stopped adoring celebrities in that kind of way long ago but I have always been someone who would ride or die for everything before Purple Rain (For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, and Controversy) + “If I Was Your Girlfriend” + “Adore” + so much more. At eleven years old in 1982, Prince’s 1999 was the first vinyl album I ever bought for myself, by myself, with my own money earned from babysitting. No borrowing or asking adults when it came to this album! The track, “Lady Cab Driver,” was my ultimate center of gravity though I couldn’t possibly have understood what that song was talking about (see the music player above).
“Purple Rain” seems to be literally playing in homes, cars, stores— all around me— right now, a song whose coupling of deep sadness and triumph I am only now appreciating. It had never occurred to me that I would take Prince’s loss this hard, though the OldSkool block parties here in my hometown of Brooklyn sure do make the mourning so much sweeter. There will be memorials and tantalizing stories of Prince’s death in the days to come, I am sure. During all of that (pending) mayhem, I’m going to just sit with my 11-year-old self and the woman I am now who understands “Purple Rain” so much better.