Building Community Through a Syllabus
By Z Nicolazzo
October 26, 2017
Z Nicolazzo has created a syllabus geared toward promoting the continuing work being done regarding trans* populations in higher education.
I am currently one of the few openly trans* tenure-track professors in my field of higher education and student affairs, and I recently published a book, Trans* in College:Transgender Students' Strategies for Navigating Campus Life and the Institutional Politics of Inclusion. My visibility and expertise on trans* issues in higher education has brought about frequent questions from other people that often feel like a never-ending loop:
“How can I show love to the trans* community?”
“What should I read to learn about trans* people?”
“Can you give me resources about trans* people so I can learn more?”
At best, these questions are extremely naïve. Clearly, trans* people have been present throughout postsecondary education for decades. For example, trans* archivist and activist Reina Gossett found photos of Sylvia Rivera and Marsha “Pay It No Mind” Johnson - two trans* women of color - involved in a 1970 protest on behalf of gay students’ rights at New York University. And if trans* people have been in and around postsecondary education, one can bet we have been telling our stories for just as long, too.
At worst, however, the above questions serve as manifestations of the ongoing trans* oppression present throughout American society. What I mean is that the continued ignorance of trans* people, communities and knowledge, underscores the ways in which cisgender (i.e., nontrans*) people do not (have to) think about gender due to their gender-based privilege.
Exposing Epistemological Trans* Oppression in Higher Education
Several educational scholars have discussed how epistemology, or the theory of knowledge, is itself steeped in systemic racism. Specifically, work by Lori D. Patton and Young points out how this occurs, referring to the phenomenon as “epistemological racism.”
Building on their work, I have termed the continuing erasure of trans* knowledges in higher education epistemological trans* oppression. The very asking of what one should read to learn about trans* people underscores the ongoing presence of a world in which the questioner does not feel the need to previously have known about trans* people. Such awareness is a nice add-on, but otherwise not considered central or primary in academe.
In addition, when cisgender people ask these questions, it puts trans* people in a difficult position. We must be willing to have our labor and time continually exploited by (presumably well-meaning) cisgender people or risk being positioned as the “angry trans* person” when we say we will not do work that cisgender people should rightly do.
For many of us, this choice is far from an easy one, as we are in precarious positions of education and/or employment. Indeed, the pull to be seen as “nice” and “helpful,” particularly through the rhetoric of being “collegial” or “professional,” is felt by many of us, including: trans* students who need recommendations for jobs and/or advanced studies, early-career trans* academics seeking tenure-stream positions, and trans* staff who have to worry about performance evaluations as a part of the increasing audit culture in higher education.
It is against this backdrop that I recently decided to curate the #TransingHigherEdSyllabus. I felt inspired by the recent practice of marginalized people creating publicly accessible social justice-oriented syllabi, such as the #CharlestonSyllabus, #FergusonSyllabus and #PulseOrlandoSyllabus, among others. So, I decided to construct a similar syllabus geared toward promoting the continuing work that is being done regarding trans* populations in higher education..
Z Nicolazzo is an assistant professor in the adult and higher education program and faculty associate in the Center for the Study of Women, Gender and Sexuality at Northern Illinois University. You can follow Z on Twitter at @trans_killjoy as well as on his website (www.znicolazzo.weebly.com).
This article was originally published on Inside Higher Ed.