Who Makes the Syllabus, and Who Makes It on the Syllabus?

Black History Month should inspire us to reflect on how race is addressed in our classrooms.

By Leena El-Sadek

One of my fondest memories from my time as an undergraduate at Duke University is witnessing Maya Angelou speak. I arrived an hour early just so I could sit in the front row. I was surprised that many present did not even know who Angelou was. Angelou’s words set the crowd afire. She was a contrarian—to speak as boldly as she did during an era of high censorship and unforgiving racial mores was brave. Among other lessons, Angelou urged us to turn to poetry to understand humanity. “Poetry encapsulates so much of what the human being has gone through, goes through and is yet to go through,” she said. “The poem is written for all of us…all of the time.” Maya Angelou passed away less than three years after that lecture, but her lesson is as relevant now for students at UChicago as it was for me and my classmates almost a decade ago.

I thought about this lesson last week in my civil rights class at the Law School. The professor is a white woman whose résumé drips with Ivy League accolades. She seems to be well informed on the major arguments, narratives, and theories of the civil rights movement. Every week, we discuss the assigned readings, usually a dense text detailing some aspect of the civil rights movement. For our first assignment of the quarter, we read books by historians and compared them to poems and short essays by notable writers of the civil rights movement, such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and even Maya Angelou. This assignment revealed a frustration that I’ve harbored for many years: Even with our education, we privilege the privileged, ignoring the contributions and scholarship of people whose experiences outside the classrooms are important to our understanding inside the classroom. In many classes, like this one, primary sources are offered as a mere complement to secondary sources written by historians. In some classes, primary sources aren’t read at all. As I completed the assignment, I wondered, what would a history class look like if we only read primary sources? What if professors’ syllabi were more representative of the history that they described? If educational institutions are sources of knowledge production, what is UChicago doing to ensure its fidelity to giving students an honest education, not just a polished, peer-reviewed one?

At the start of this Black History Month, I reflected on where we are and how things have changed since Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and others decided to preserve their truths in their enduring works. At the University of Chicago Law School, there are too few tenured Black professors and senior Black administrators. We’ve been forced to memorize theories by scholars who have, at best, benefitted from racial inequities, and at worst, promulgated them. Many law students graduate from the best law schools in the country without having to take a single course discussing critical race issues. When we talk about racism, it’s not just the blatant racism that manifests in discussions and behaviors. It’s also the racism that is birthed in our education—it’s the privilege we are affording to dead white men while ignoring the very real lessons and truths from Black, female, and non-Black POC educators.

This is not unique to professors’ syllabi. Classroom discussions are also guilty of lacking honesty and representation. We’ve witnessed many hot takes. The devil’s advocate polemicist. The hubris of students who talk at length but contribute so little to classroom discussion. Classrooms are sacred spaces in which we straddle the line between artifice and authenticity. Classroom discourse does not exist in a free market. Professors have a responsibility to become barometers of integrity when they decide to afford platforms to loud, albeit not always correct, students. Comments are not made with impunity, and what is said in the classroom can have rippling effects.

Students must remain vigilant. Who makes it to your syllabus, and who doesn’t? Who is afforded space and time in classrooms, and who isn’t? Who is being promoted and tenured, and who isn’t? Students are at the forefront of driving this change, as we saw with the Black Law Students Association’s success in confronting a professor’s use of racial slurs in the classroom. Until our education is representative of the world we are learning about, we cannot stop advocating for our collective inclusion.

Among the many writers included in the anthology, I read for class was James Baldwin. Regarding the importance of writing and preserving truths, he said, “One writes out of one thing only—one’s own experiences. Everything depends on how relentlessly one forces from this experience the last drop, sweet or bitter, it can possibly give. This is the only real concern of the artist, to recreate out of the disorder of life that order which is art.”

I came to law school to make sense of this world, in hopes of contributing to meaningful change. If many people I lived with at Duke didn’t show up to listen to Maya Angelou in person, an opportunity not afforded to many, then surely, they’re not taking advantage of her experience and wisdom in the written word. People choose not to invest their time in seeking education from disempowered figures, which makes it even more important for universities such as UChicago to use their power to educate on what students are not educated on. It’s about time UChicago starts teaching with intellectual honesty and ensures that classrooms and syllabi are representative of the world they inhabit. We owe it to the unrecognized leaders, scholars, and teachers who never make it to our classrooms.

Leena El-Sadek is a student at the University of Chicago Law School.