Decolonizing Your Syllabus, an Anti-Racist Guide for Your College

Palomar College
Palomar College

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges.


The reality today is that black indigenous people of color (BIPOC) are finding themselves having to lead anti-racism conversations and actions to change their institutions. Simply having white allies and college administration holding town-halls and meetings and listening to the BIPOC community is no longer enough. Academic institutions should all have a call to action to address racial inequities and to be accountable to meet the transformational change that society needs.

Prior to the spread of the worldwide pandemics— COVID-19 infection, overt racism, increase of mental health issues, and economic instability—many inequities existed for students who identify as BIPOC. Today, remote teaching creates a further disparity for preparations and completion amongst BIPOC students in the community college system. The quarantine process may enable many college campuses to reflect on their anti-racism efforts. Doing so will also enable faculty to reconstruct their remote and online teaching with a welcoming, innovative, comfortable, and engaging approach for students who identify as BIPOC and have multiple barriers they are confronted with. If an instructor does not know where to start, a good place may be with decolonizing the course syllabus, since it is usually the first official document students encounter in any course they take.


A decolonized syllabus infuses anti-racism and equity at the forefront. Student learning outcomes, the course outline of record, textbooks, and any ancillary materials should all address anti-racism rhetoric. Faculty need to reflect, rethink, and reconstruct course syllabi so that they support BIPOC engagement, validation, and sense of belonging in education. The design, content, and tone of the course syllabus will either engage or disengage students.

Cruz (2019) highlights the importance of fostering inclusivity and empowering statements in a course syllabus, such as “mutual respect, shared responsibility, opportunities to share meaningful experiences, effective communication, and supporting honest and comfortable relationships” (p.1). Thus, faculty need to establish trust with their students from the beginning. Research depicts that students refer to the course syllabus when needed, but if the course syllabus is unambiguous, un-intimidating, and welcoming, students would make better use of understanding the course and the expectations set by the instructor (Roberts, n.d.; Collins, 1997; Slattery and Carlson, 2005).

Roberts (n.d) conveys the importance of language setting the tone for students to understand “faculty’s attitude towards teaching and learning” (p.46). Due to the current COVID-19 pandemic and, as a result, remote teaching, faculty are encouraged to record welcoming remarks for students in an asynchronous format and provide live salutation statements during synchronous teaching (Harnish and Bridges, 2011). Policies about plagiarism, student conduct, and disruptive behavior should not be punitive and instead should address how faculty can communicate with and support students if such issues emerge.

Faculty have a responsibility to “articulate their course goals and objectives” (Collins, 1997, p.5) and guide students toward the learning process. They should aim to empower BIPOC and first-generation students to self-advocate and gain agency which faculty should be responsible for providing for them. This goal can be achieved by faculty being approachable and supportive continually. To decolonize teaching, faculty must reflect and commit to changing content and delivery that further marginalizes BIPOC students.

While many theoretical perspectives can apply in anti-racist teaching pedagogy, the three that greatly support BIPOC students include the following:

Validation. A practice that can be included is taking the time to contact the students—by e-mail, phone, and Canvas—when they do not show up for their lessons and checking in on them. Validation should happen both inside and outside of the classroom (Rendon, 1994). The retention of BIPOC students goes beyond the college’s data and new funding formula and involves transforming society by ensuring success is achieved for communities who have been confronted with ongoing marginalization, oppression, and barriers.

Engagement. Astin’s (1985) perspective was to engage students intellectually and physically in the classroom to feel supported and acknowledged with their learning. BIPOC students need to see themselves in the context of what they learn. Whatever the subject discipline one may teach, faculty are responsible to include race-conscious content and scholarly research. For example, in mathematics, to remedy the whitewashing of BIPOC contributions, faculty need to expose students to their mathematical cultural heritage. This goal can be achieved by showcasing the non-European roots of mathematics (Joseph, 2010), using “the mathematics which is practised among identifiable cultural groups” (Powell and Frankenstein, 1997, p.7) and language in decolonizing mathematics (Iseke-Barnes, 2000). As a result, when student engagement increases, a greater sense of belonging will take place as well.

Sense of Belonging. When a class has both validation and engagement, then it will generate a greater sense of belonging for BIPOC students. Sense of belonging is achieved when students feel supported, respected, and accepted by their instructors and peers. Strayhorn (2018) conveys how sense of belonging leads to “optimal functioning” (p.9) and learning for students. Introductions at the start of each course, recalling students’ names correctly, and knowing students’ gender pronouns are impactful practices. Being sensitive to the needs of students and demonstrating unconditional positive regard will build a strong community in a course.

The decolonization of the syllabus movement has slowly started to influence higher education (Rodríguez, 2018; Bhambra, Nisancioglu, and Gebrial, 2018). It might be easier to implement inside non-Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) disciplines, but faculty should strive to bring STEM into the fold to serve our BIPOC students better. Colleges need to move beyond colonial views of science and technology by providing counter-histories to Eurocentric narratives and highlight contributions of female and BIPOC scientists throughout time (Harding, 2011). White faculty need to commit themselves to racial consciousness in the classroom by interrogating whiteness and relinquishing power in education (Joseph, Haynes, and Cobb, 2015). The antiracist reckoning in academia is long overdue. Faculty should take this moment to reflect upon their teaching to include an anti-racist framework that supports BIPOC students and their racial identities.


To reconstruct a course syllabus within a decolonized and anti-racist framework, faculty should reflect upon the following:

  • Do students know who you are? Consider introducing yourself—race or ethnicity, gender pronouns, academic experience, cultural identity, etc.—as the instructor of the course and providing anti-racist and equity-minded messaging to welcome your students.
  • Can students contact you through multiple methods and with flexibility in communication times?
  • What books, articles, and readings have been selected in your course? Are your course resources inclusive to race, socio-economic standing, gender, sexuality, disability, immigration status, English language learner, and first-generation students?
  • Do students have input in shaping content and co-creating community rules outlined in the course syllabus?
  • Does the syllabus include explicit language about the intolerance of microaggressions and racist remarks, action, and behavior in the course?
  • Allocating points can cause students to assume they have no room for growth, and therefore they may drop out of the course (Rose, 2017). Faculty may consider holistic modalities and progression steps—for example, beginning, emerging, and proficiency—to develop opportunities for the learner to grow (Feldman, 2019) before finalizing student grading in the class.
  • Are mistakes expected, respected, and used to elevate students’ understanding of the subject? Do you offer opportunities for retaking missed or late work? What opportunities do students have to catch up if they are behind due to technological barriers or other personal deterrents?
  • Is language around policies and expectations of students supportive and not punitive or deficit thinking (Valencia, 2010)?
  • Does your course syllabus provide information regarding housing and food insecurities, along with other on and off campus resources that benefits economically disadvantaged students?
  • Is your course on Canvas accessible, clear, inclusive, welcoming, and supportive for all learners to follow despite the modality of asynchronous or synchronous teaching?
  • Do you include messaging regarding your responsibility as a faculty member to alert learners early if participation, learning, and attendance are not met?
  • Do your course syllabus and Canvas site include positive messag es and affirmations to further validate and provide a greater sense of belonging for BIPOC students in the course? Do the images and videos in the course showcase diversity and representation of the students?

For institutional level change, higher education needs to move towards an anti-racist model and enact actions, not just statements, that work for BIPOC students (Ash, Hill, Risdon, and Jun, 2020). This process goes beyond decolonizing the course syllabus. Faculty need to consider their overall teaching pedagogy, platforms, and structures that are in place, especially in the current reality of remote learning.

  • Has your institution dissected each COR and all SLOs to include anti-racist practices and framework?
  • Has your institution widened the use of open educational resources, which can remove barriers for economically disadvantaged students?
  • How does your institution analyze retention and completion data from diverse sources like the Community College Survey of Student Engagement and student success metrics data from Cal Plus Pass and Data Mart through the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s office? Does the institution outline actions to imp rove course data for BIPOC student outcomes?
  • Are opportunities present to gather qualitative data—focus groups, interviews, journaling, faculty observations, etc.—from BIPOC students regarding teaching and learning practices? What action steps have been taken once qualitative data has been collected?
  • Is the college committed to equity and anti-racist professional development training for all faculty?
  • Are anti-racist statements present in the college’s mission, vision, policies, procedures, campus plans, and institutional learning outcomes?


The only way to dismantle inequities and institutionalize anti-racism in teaching for BIPOC students is to provide ongoing professional development workshops. Anti-racism curriculum begins with faculty deeply reflecting about themselves, the content they are delivering, and who their BIPOC students really are. When deeply reflecting, one is aware of one’s own implicit and unconscious bias that one has as an educator (Wood, 2019). For anti-racism to be institutionalized, all constituents on a college campus must reflect and participate in the call to action rather than just faculty.


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