Two days after nine African Americans were murdered in Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June of last year, #Charlestonsyllabus started trending on Twitter, with thousands of people using the hashtag to share resources they found helpful in understanding such a horrific event. As Chad Williams, a Professor of African and Afro-American Studies who sparked the exchange later made clear, he was following the example of Georgetown historian Marcia Chatelain, who created the #FergusonSyllabus as a way for educators to share ideas on how to talk about Ferguson in their classrooms.
#Charlestonsyllabus was widely embraced, and from the loose list of works shared on social media there soon emerged an organized and cohesive syllabus, posted online by the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). The thoughtful curating that took the materials from a firehose of inspiration to a deliberately constructed learning plan is of course the work academics have always done for their courses, but there was something remarkably open and democratic about doing it in public and online. As Williams has noted, the syllabus is more than a list; “It is a community of people committed to critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation.” It’s also now a book available from the University of Georgia Press.
It’s been heartening to see this model of communal thought take hold over the past year, with academics sharing a lead in bringing context and rigor to a public discourse disfigured by news cycles. The Public Books site has been particularly active on this front. In the wake of a Chronicle of Higher Education Trump 101 syllabus that lacked a diversity of voices, Public Books shared Trump Syllabus 2.0, assembled by historians N. D. B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain. Then, after the Trump Access Hollywood video surfaced in October, making sexual assault and its denial central to the presidential contest, Public Books posted a Rape Culture Syllabus. In introducing it, Laura Ciolkowski made its purpose clear:
Scholars and activists, poets and playwrights have been writing about rape for centuries. What would the conversation around sexual assault, police bias, and the legal system look like if investigators, police officers, and judges read deeply into the literature on sexuality, racial justice, violence, and power? It is in view of this question that the following syllabus is offered as a scholarly resource—and object of critical discussion and debate—on “rape culture” in the 21st century.
Also this fall, the NYC Stands with Standing Rock Collective produced a Standing Rock Syllabus in solidarity with those working to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. They write:
The different sections and articles place what is happening now in a broader historical, political, economic, and social context going back over 500 years to the first expeditions of Columbus, the founding of the United States on institutionalized slavery, private property, and dispossession, and the rise of global carbon supply and demand. Indigenous peoples around the world have been on the frontlines of conflicts like Standing Rock for centuries. This syllabus brings together the work of Indigenous and allied activists and scholars: anthropologists, historians, environmental scientists, and legal scholars, all of whom contribute important insights into the conflicts between Indigenous sovereignty and resource extraction. While our primary goal is to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, we recognize that Standing Rock is one frontline of many around the world. This syllabus can be a tool to access research usually kept behind paywalls, or a resource package for those unfamiliar with Indigenous histories and politics.
And just this week, a team of historians offered a Prison Abolition Syllabus at AAIHS. Noting the nationwide prison strike, the prominence of Ava DuVernay’s new documentary on the 13th Amendment, and the surging stock prices for corrections-related companies after Trump’s election, the organizers write that the Prison Abolition Syllabus “seeks to contextualize and highlight prison organizing and prison abolitionist efforts from the 13th Amendment’s rearticulation of slavery to current resistance to mass incarceration, solitary confinement, and prison labor exploitation.”
There are other examples (such as the Anna Julia Cooper Center’s Welfare Reform Syllabus), and there are surely more to come. We’re of course happy to see many HUP books and authors listed among the recommended: Crystal Feimster, Estelle Freedman, and Catharine MacKinnon appear on the Rape Culture Syllabus; Ned Blackhawk and Aziz Rana on Trump Syllabus 2.0; Ira Berlin, Stephanie Smallwood, Walter Johnson, and many others on the Charleston Syllabus; and Elizabeth Hinton and Khalil Gibran Muhammad each on more than one. But beyond the satisfaction of seeing these particular books embraced in the public sphere, it’s both gratifying and invigorating to see serious works of scholarship upheld as integral to, as Williams wrote, “critical thinking, truth telling and social transformation.”