Decolonizing your syllabus is different than including some Indigenous writers on the reading schedule.

Inclusion is a form of diversification but it can also be violent. Inviting voices into spaces not built for them or that undermine their messages, lived experiences, and expertise can often work against the well-intentioned goals of inclusion. This is what is meant by tokenism or “add Indigenous and stir,” where inclusion acts as a sufficient action to deal with underrepresentation, but there is no structural change (for great work on the problems of the inclusion model, see Sarah Ahmed’s On Being Included. For problems (and resistances) of inclusion in Indigenous education in particular, see Troy Richardson’s “Navigating the Problem of Inclusion as Enclosure in Native Culture‐Based Education“).

Since colonialism is about settler and colonial entitlement to accessing Indigenous land, knowledge, culture, etc, for settler and colonial goals, then mere inclusion of Indigenous writers and obtaining and “integrating” their ideas to enrich settler education can be a form of colonialism (for how this works in the class and collaborations, see Jones & Jenkins’ ‘Rethinking Collaboration‘). That’s probably not your goal! So what to do?

First, I highly recommend reading Tuck and Yang’s “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” which talks about education and its efforts to decolonize, including what they call “settler moves to innocence,” where well-intentioned and small-step actions can actually work against shared goals of decolonization. Crucially, it is a text that shows how decolonization is not the same as inclusion or truth & reconciliation. Understanding how (some) Indigenous thinkers articulate what decolonization is and is not is important if your goal is not to appropriate or misuse Indigenous meanings.

For Tuck and Yang and for so many other Indigenous people, decolonization means only one thing: the rematriation of Indigenous Land and life. How do you do that in a classroom?

Screen shot of a Tweet by Matt Anderson that says: “‘When you use the term decolonizing, make sure that it involves the return of something material.’ – Kim TallBear speaking to how decolonizing as a term is overused and often incorrectly. This raises questions about if you can ‘decolonize a syllabus.”

If you teach using samples, data, archives, recordings, or other items procured from Indigenous land or peoples, you can return those. Otherwise, it’s pretty hard to decolonize using a syllabus. But there are anticolonial things you can do– things that aim to stop the reproduction of colonialism in the classroom.

You can start by learning and teaching about the colonial roots and ongoing structures of colonialism in your discipline. Do you teach botany or biogeography? See Schiebinger & Swan’s Colonial Botany. Statistics? Try Walter & Andersen’s Indigenous Statistics. Environmental studies? Grove’s Green Imperialism. Environmental history? Griffin and Robin’s Ecology and Empire.  Math? Verran’s Science and an African Logic (by the way, you can’t just sample from Verran’s book– she flips chapters between how she used to think and how her teaching and learning became more anti-colonial and you don’t want to replicate her pre-learning!). There are countless more. But please, please don’t message me for more–in truth & reconciliation, learning the truths of colonization is literally your job. Doing the work is crucial. Doing it with students is even better.

A syllabus that shows how your discipline benefits from and perpetuates colonialism, then working with students and colleagues to teach, do research and become citizens that do not perpetuate those patterns so Indigenous land and life is repatriated … that’s much closer to decolonizing your syllabus!

Screen Shot 2017-12-30 at 1.57.04 PM
Photo by Bojan Furst, How We Do Science

This essay was originally a Twitter essay by @maxliboiron on August 10, 2019. It was updated in July 2021.