Prof. Ruiz takes a selfie with her class titled, “Introduction to the Chicano/Latino Experience” at CSU-Stanislaus in Spring 2017
The Colonial Syllabus in Literature and First Year Composition
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca and Iris D. Ruiz
Originally published 8/15/2017 in Somos en escrito.
Maria Cabrera displays a collage on the United Farm Workers Grape Boycott
The central question of this essay is: Can the Syllabus be an agent of colonialism by serving as a vehicle for censorship, indoctrination, and an inhibitor of intellectual freedom? We believe it can.
Writing in the American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (2016 Dec 25; 80(10): 177), Martha M. Rumpore informs us that “For several decades the literature has referred to syllabi as legal documents and/or contracts between students and professors. A review of the legal precedents reveals that syllabi are not considered contracts because the courts refuse thus far to recognize educational malpractice or breach of contract as a cause of action. Syllabi do, however, represent a triggering agent for instructional dissent and grade appeals.”
Essentially, however, students are barred from redress based solely on the course syllabus. In effect they are held captives by a syllabus that protects the academic emissions of the Instructor or Professor no matter how misinformed he or she may be or how odious the emissions. Nevertheless, the syllabus represents “a triggering agent for instructional dissent.” This means students may disagree openly (at their own peril) with the academic emissions of the Instructor or Professor. Important to bear in mind is that:
Since its founding in 1915, the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has understood academic freedom to comprise three interlinked elements: (1) the freedom to teach without external interference, (2) the freedom to conduct research without ideological constraint, and (3) the freedom to speak openly and without sanction on matters of institutional policy and on issues of public concern.
“Issues of public concern” does not mean license to spew in the classroom ideological claptrap, character assassination, or outright lies. Yet these peccadillos arise over and over in college and university classrooms with impunity in the belief that their emissions are protected speech. Not all speech is protected by the First Amendment. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes established the proviso that one may not yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no presence of fire (incitement to imminent lawless action), and yelling “bomb” heedlessly on an airplane (ditto).
The syllabus–any syllabus–is never free of bias; it’s always an idiocritical agent of the instructor even when the instructor makes every effort to keep the syllabus bias-free. From this perspective, can a syllabus be an agent of censorship in what we learn and an inhibitor of intellectual freedom in that process despite its seemingly innocent function as a guide in that process?
It can, though that kind of gross deception violates the canon of academic freedom which is more than authority to say what one wishes as a teacher/professor in the classroom. Consistent with the tenets of the First Amendment of the American Constitution and instructional propriety, Academic Freedom bestows considerable latitude in the classroom in professing the dictum of one’s professional academic field. This is not permission to rant indiscriminately on politics, religion, or race but permission to hold and to expostulate–within academic bounds–contrarian views in one’s field. Unfortunately or fortuitously the classroom becomes the arena where values clash.
The syllabus is not an arbiter of these clashes but a mediator of their import. What is often missing in the syllabus is the point of view or bias of the instructor anent the topic or subject of the class and its content. A seemingly innocuous guide to the course, the syllabus does not alert the student to the layout of the intellectual minefield he or she will traverse in the coverage of the course. This does not mean that syllabi are perforce nefarious. It does mean that all syllabi inscribe motive.
Motive is difficult to plumb. But it’s there. Even with the best of intentions (motives) a syllabus can be flawed. In the case of the absent text–by and about Minority literature and its writers–critical race theory (CRT) helps in unwrangling the Gordian Knot of literature. According to the UCLA School of Public Affairs’ critical race studies website:
“CRT recognizes that racism is engrained in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color” (https://spacrs.wordpress.com/).
The Syllabus and Courses
Applying Critical Race Theory, Roberto Pachecano posits that American Latina/o authors are not appearing in the syllabi of contemporary American literature courses because of outright racism. And if works by American Latina/o authors are not being assigned in literature classes, then using the 1964 Civil Rights Act Title VI protocols as a guide Latinos and Latinas are uniquely situated to advocate for the modernizing of syllabi to include American Latina/o authors.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as codified in 42 U.S.C. 2000d, states that: No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subject to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. “Literary works by Latinos are seldom selected, due in part to student’s unfamiliarity with these authors” (Roberto Pachecano).
Here, then, is a prime example of censorship by omission and a revelation of insufficient training in the teaching of American Literature or willful neglect of the moral landscape of education. Historically we know about the absence of black writers in the syllabi of American Literature prior to the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. Outright prejudice against black writers by white literary gatekeepers kept black writers out of the classes in American Literature prompting black scholars and writers to organize the College Language Association (CLA) as a mechanism for literary inclusion in Academia.
An early effort of the 60s and 70s to counter not only the absence of Chicano texts and the absence of Chicanos in course texts was creation and publication of “counter-texts.” For example, to offset the racist characterizations of Chicanos and their culture in Social Science texts, a string of texts were created by Chicano scholars encouraged by the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE). In the long run these critical counter narratives helped in challenging dominant ideology and eliminating Chicano stereotyping in Social Science texts.
Unfortunately, these counter-texts did not abate the absence of Chicano writers in classes of American Literature. The problem with texts of American Literature is that in far too many departments of English there is the belief that English is white and that the only writers of note are white.
“For too long social and cognitive scientists have regarded the ‘victim’ as the locus of the problem with conclusions that American minorities fail because their culture is faulty” (Ortego, November 2014). This pronouncement of “cultural determinism” is still bruited widely. The outcome of that pronouncement has been a “cultural dissonance” among Chicano/Latino students vying for academic success in most colleges and universities including, of all places, Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) that should be nurturing their success. Cultural dissonance is an uncomfortable sense of discord, disharmony, confusion or conflict experienced by people in the midst of change in their cultural environment.
The Syllabus and Composition Ortego y Gasca points to the description of English Composition courses as one that is generalizable across many U.S. First Year Composition (FYC) courses. It is free of any mention of what the students will be writing about, only that they will gain competency in “academic writing.” This description refers to writing as a skill to be mastered while not considering what content the student is supposed to be a master of. For students of color, this inherent structure of FYC course syllabi proves disadvantageous as it is assumed that all students have similar cultural competencies or as Pierre Bourdieu would refer to as: “cultural capital.” Similar to the absences in American Literature syllabi that Ortego points to above, Ruiz argues that most U.S. writing programs practice this type of “blind oversight” in their curricula, course learning outcomes, and program learning outcomes. Ruiz’s claim is based upon a search of four year institutions and two year institutions, and the research that Ruiz conducted on the history of race in Writing Program Administration (due in the next issue of the WPA journal).
Turning to the FYC course, the syllabus is never bias-free. As Iris Ruiz has pointed out in Reclaiming Composition for Chicano/as and other Ethnic Minorities: A Critical History and Pedagogy, the first year composition course has historically sanctioned goals that are part and parcel of the genesis of Composition Studies as a discipline. The aim of FYC courses has historically been to correct students’ in/abilities to produce grammatically correct Standard English (aka Edited American English) compositions using prose that demonstrates taste, responsibility, culture, class, and cleanliness.
One only has to examine the Course Learning Outcomes of most FYC Programs present in syllabi and the Assessment procedures undergone by faculty and administration to see that little to nothing has changed (Ruiz and Garcia de Mueller). That nothing has changed means that the standard, white curriculum for FYC Programs is still in place as the hegemonic curriculum in the continuity of its historical purpose.
Ortego comments on the discord between claims to end racism and the continuance of all white curricula in English departments and writing programs at historically white colleges (HWCs). Further adding to this hegemonic stance noted by Ortego in HWCs is Ruiz’ bold description of the cultural imperatives tied to FYC: “The practice of teaching Composition, since its first appearance on university campuses in the late nineteenth century, has been and is still a political practice in that it teaches a certain view of academic writing and enforces, then, a certain cultural conception of what the definition of good writing is even if that definition changes across contexts” (Ruiz, 42). The question is: What does it mean to write well? Evidently e. e. cummings was not paying attention to the writing lectures.
One can teach an orthography of writing, a set of conventions for writing a language including norms of spelling. How does one teach normative writing to class after class of Freshman Composition? With a pantograph, perhaps. This is not meant as derision or mockery. Teaching Composition is tough business, made tougher by how we acquire knowledge predicated by an Epistemic Matrix that includes (though not exclusively) factors of Age, Gender, Education, Religion, Ethnicity, Genetics, Language, and Culture.
Like the Epistemic Matrix, Intersectional Theory posits that the factors of Age, Gender, Education, Religion, Ethnicity, Race, Nationality, Social Class, and Sexual Orientation are inextricably essential in understanding identity and its functions. Assemblage Theory, on the other hand, connects the heterogeneity of these factors. What we can gather from these “frictional” theories is the complexity of teaching.
Reflection Lost in the din of this brouhaha is the specter of American colonialism that has forced Mexican Americans as well as Puerto Ricans, Native Americans, African Americans, and Pacific Islanders, colonized in their own lands by Manifest Destiny, to learn writing in a colonial language (Ruiz and Sánchez) while abandoning scribal competency in their cultural language, “balancing two cultures, two languages, and two places to call home” (Ruiz. 114). This is a condition that principally attends those Americans who ancestrally became Americans by conquest and fiat. This consideration is not evident in the Composition Syllabus.
In their article on “Teaching Race at Historically White Colleges and Universities: Identifying and Dismantling the Walls of Whiteness,” David L. Brunsma, Eric S. Brown, and Peggy Placier inform us that outlining the “walls of whiteness” makes “it difficult to teach the sociology of race and racism and makes it difficult for students at historically white colleges and universities (HWCUs) to wrestle with these important issues. Most white students enter HWCUs surrounded by these walls protecting them from attacks on white supremacy–that have multiple layers and therefore are even more difficult to penetrate; yet they must be penetrated” (Critical Sociology, September 2013, 39: 717–738, first published on September 11, 2012).
Conclusion The fly in this ointment is that American teachers of English in high schools and colleges are ill-prepared not only for the ethnic diversity of their classrooms but also ill-prepared to teach the diversity of American literature since so few are exposed to the diversity of American literature. The focus of their training has been on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the English literary canon.
When teachers of English step into their classrooms all they know about American literature are the works of what was then the American literary canon, limited to Washington Irving, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and Mark Twain. Nurtured on the Western Tradition, this is what they teach and have taught and passed on to subsequent generations of American students. Sacrosanct, the illumination of the Western Tradition in literature continued unabated until the emergence of minority movements of the post-Brown v. Board of Education era (Ortego 1971).
When these issues appear on a course syllabus they are often glossed over in the presentation or explained from the dominant perspective of the issue which often favors the hegemonic view. Students are thus deprived of the view from the Mexican American side. For example, in today’s political climate, most Anglo Americans think that Mexican Americans are a recently arrived immigrant group.
American demographic knowledge about the Hispanic Southwest and about Mexican Americans in the United States is dismal, evident in spurious remarks by Donald Trump and tweets emanating from Republican and Democratic presidential election activities during this past presidential election cycle. While not overloading the syllabus, it’s important that current syllabi reflect accuracy of content and bias-free perspectives and commentary. Anything less invalidates its use.
Works Cited and Consulted American Association of University Professors, 1133 Nineteenth Street, NW, Suite 200 Washington, DC 20036. Brunsuma. David L., Brown, Eric S., and Placier, Peggy, “Teaching Race at Historically White Colleges and Universities: Identifying the Walls of Whiteness,” Critical Sociology. September 2013 39: 717-738, first published on September 11, 2012. Levy, https://www.wired.com/2010/02/ff_google_algorithm/ Ortego, Philip D., “Montezuma’s Children” The Center Magazine (Cover Story), November /December 1970; received John Maynard Hutchins Citation for Distinguished Journalism; entered into The Congressional Record 116, No. 189 (November 25, 1970, S-18961-S19865) by Senator Ralph Yarbrough (D-TX) who recommended it for a Pulitzer. Ortego, Philip D. “Which Southwestern Literature in the English Classroom?” Arizona English Bulletin, April, 1971. Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de, “Sociopolitical Implications of Bilingual Education”in Educational Resources and Techniques, Summer 1972; Mano a Mano (5:1, February 1976), publication of the Chicano Training Center, Houston, Texas. Reprinted in Developing the Multicultural Process in Classroom Instruction: Competencies for Teachers, University Press of America: Washington, DC, 1979. Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de, “Myth America: Velleities and Realities of the American Ethos,” Sixth Annual Mary Thomas Marshall Lecture, delivered March 12, 1993, Texas State University System–Sul Ross, Alpine, Texas. Published in the Journal of Big Bend Studies, Volume 6, January 1994. Ortego y Gasca, Felipe de and Alexandrs Neves, “Swimming Upstream in Multicultural America: Significance of Global Dynamics in Education for American Latinas/os” in Twenty-First Century Dynamics of Multiculturalism: Beyond Post-Racial America, Edited by Martin Guevara Urbina, Charles C Thomas Publisher Ltd, 2014. ______________________, “Writing and Cultural Dissonance: Chicanos/Latinos, Freshman English, and Writing Centers,” Historia Chicana, November 12, 2014. ______________________, “Race on Campus and Historically White Colleges and Universities,” Somos Primos, January 2016. ______________________, “A Page Hidden in American History: The Mexican American Story Yet to be told—Hey America, We’re Your Native Sons,” Somos en Escrito The Latino Literary Online Magazine, Guest Editorial, June 21, 2016. ______________________, “Masks of Identity: The Space of Liminal Possibilities.” Latinopia.com/Bravo Road with Don Felipe, August, 2017. ______________________, “I am not your Wetback,” Latinopia.com/Bravo Road with Don Felipe, July 2017. ______________________,” The Epistemic Matrix and Intersectional Assemblage Theories, Manuscript. Pachecano, Roberto, “American Latinos in Contemporary American Literature: Modernizing the Syllabus.” A Possible Sigma Tau Delta Literary Diversity Approach (Correspondence). Puar, Jasbir, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess: Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics” eipcp: europäisches institut für progressive kulturpolitik, 01 2011. Rumore, Martha M., “The Course Syllabus: Legal Contract or Operator’s Manual?” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education (2016 Dec 25; 80(10): 177). Ruiz, Iris D., Reclaiming Composition for Chicano/as and other Ethnic Minorities: A Critical History and Pedagogy, Palgrave/Macmillan, 2016. Ruiz, Iris D. Genevieve Garcia de Mueller. Race and Silence in Writing Program Administration: A Qualitative Study. WPA Journal June, 2017. Ruiz, Iris D. and Raúl Sánchez. Eds. Decolonizing Composition and Rhetoric: New Latinx Keywords for Theory and Pedagogy. Palgrave/McMillan, 2016. UCLA. School of Public Affairs Website. June 30, 2017 https://spacrs.wordpress.com/what-is-critical-race-theory
Sample Dartmouth: Designing your Syllabus: Backward Design When you design a syllabus for any course, you begin with the outcomes that you intend for your students to achieve, and you work backwards from these to particular readings and writing assignments. This method, formalized, is called the method of backward design. Backward design is a useful method for any professor in that it ensures that all assignments, readings, and activities will connect students with the outcomes that the professor deems essential to the course. At the first stage of backward design, writing instructors should consider two issues: what they want their students to know/experience in their courses, and what they want them to be able to do, in these courses and afterwards. Put another way, instructors need to think both about their focusing questions and their course outcomes. You'll note that the first issue—what instructors want their students to know/experience—distinguishes between knowledge and experience. Indeed, this distinction is significant in a writing class, where course content (while important) does not drive the course. The best writing classes consider the students' experiential learning in their course design. To accomplish the aims of experiential learning, it's important to come up with a course question that can bring together the many smaller questions of the course and that can engage students intellectually and experientially. For instance: What is happiness? What are the roots of violence? What is the nature of the self? Technology: friend or foe? These are the kinds of questions that can focus course readings and class discussions. They are also the kinds of questions that students can engage with outside of the context of the writing classroom. Finally, they are the kinds of questions around which professors can build a course that is intellectually coherent. Even more important the the course questions, however, are the course outcomes—in other words, what students should be able to do when the course comes to an end. In the first-year writing classes, an instructor's set of outcomes will be informed by the course outcomes (see the outcomes forWriting 2-3,Writing 5, or theFirst-Year Seminar). Take some time to review these outcomes, and to consider how every assignment and classroom activity might work to help students achieve them.