Decolonizing the syllabus

Faculty and students in the History and Sociology of Science Department are shifting the classroom toward a more global perspective.

Five faculty members and graduate students seated around tables, talking and laughing
Assistant Professor Ramah McKay and Senior Lecturer Andi Johnson discuss next steps at a workshop debrief with graduate students Claire Sabel, Taylor Dysart, and N. J. Dharan. 

Claire Sabel has lots of questions. Early on in her academic career, she found it “intellectually unsatisfying to be told this is the way that things are. The history of science,” she notes, “is all about understanding.” 

Sabel, a third-year graduate student who focuses on the impact of imperialism and trade in earth science history, is now asking questions from a global perspective. She is one of four graduate students who lead the Science Beyond the West working group within Penn’s History and Sociology of Science Department, along with N.J. Dharan, Koyna Tomar, and Taylor Dysart. Earlier this fall, the group hosted its first workshop, "Collaborative Pedagogies in the Global History of Science," with the goal of creating new, collaborative ways of teaching with a global viewpoint.  

More than 50 faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates from Penn and other institutions ranging from the University of California, San Diego, to the University of Toronto attended to discuss the integratation of global science history into graduate and undergraduate teaching. The workshop was a source of validation for many working in on teaching methods in isolation, Sabel says. “We were unprepared for the emotional impact. It was cool to have so many people excited for being acknowledged.” 

18 people eating and drinking coffee
Workshop attendees talk during a break.

Dharan, a second-year graduate student studying nitrogen scarcity in 20th-century India, says he was proud to help lead the collaborative effort. “In a department like ours that boasts so many experts across world regions,” he says, “Science Beyond the West is offering a space where those professors and scholars can rethink and redesign their courses and share resources with one another in a space that’s quite low-stakes and friendly.”

The History and Sociology of Science Department in the School of Arts and Sciences has 30 graduate students and about 200 undergraduates in two interdisciplinary majors: science, technology and society, and health and societies. Departmental courses also “draw students from all kinds of backgrounds who are just interested in thinking critically about medicine or science or technology,” says Dharan. 

The history of science offers the why behind science. It’s the code behind the webpage, the insight into how the sausage gets made. Dysart, a third-year graduate student, says that learning about the history of science can help students examine their use of everyday technologies. “Oh, you think it’s so normal that we use a thermometer to detect a fever? Let’s unpack why that is the case,” she says. Dysart, who studies the circulation of medicinal plants in 20th-century Peru, finds this approach helpful not only for teaching but also in her research. The discipline “takes a kind of everyday experience and demonstrates that the way we live our lives is not inevitable; it’s a product of different sociopolitical and geographic parameters,” she says.

The Science Beyond the West working group was initiated by a group of faculty in 2014 and revived by graduate students in January 2018, beginning as a social space for intellectual change. Now, the  group members are applying a meta approach to their own discipline. Rather than simply asking, “Why do we teach science the way we do?” they’re asking, “Why do we teach the history of science the way we do?” In doing so, this group is turning the questions on their own subject matter. 

“Our students are already questioning the widely circulated notion of science as a modern and western creation, a product of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein,” says Tomar, a second-year graduate student working on the history of human sciences and governance in 20th-century South Asia. “They want more nuanced and diverse narratives than the ones they receive.” 

In the last five years, the department has been a driver in this push to consider non-Western modes of thought. Penn is an ideal place for this, says Dharan, whose interest in studying here was piqued by “how many people in the department focus on areas beyond North America and Western Europe.” 

One of those people is Sebastián Gil-Riaño, an assistant professor studying race and ethnicity in the Global South. “The history of science has been dismantling progress narratives for a long time,” says Gil-Riaño. “Expanding our analysis in geographic terms helps us be more careful and critical.”

Man with glasses speaks at a podium
Sebastián Gil-Riaño leads a closing roundtable discussion. 

While graduate students have taken the lead in forming the working group and in organizing the workshop, Gil-Riaño has served as a faculty point person, submitting grant proposals and providing advice. “In terms of the highest expectations we can have for our students, this is the perfect example,” he says. “Things are so much easier when the student initiative is in place and when students are really passionate and committed to a project and we’re just there as resources to give them support and guidance.”

 “Our departmental faculty and leading scholars from around the globe followed the students’ lead,” says department chair Robert Aronowitz. “The conference created a special buzz—questions that mattered to students were front and center. As a faculty member, I felt intellectually challenged in the most positive sense. I left the conference with many new ideas for my own teaching, questioning a lot of my methods and assumptions, and energized to teach new things in different ways.”

The challenge is how to do so. “A common concern,” says Dharan, “is that if you try to teach beyond your area of expertise, you’re going to do it in a superficial and potentially inaccurate or damaging way. It’s so much easier to try and teach an area of the world you’re not familiar with if you have a place to start.” 

Sabel agrees. “There are only so many hours in the day to learn the languages of the world and their historiographies and their cultures.” The way around this is through collaboration, using a wide breadth of colleagues as a resource, she says. 

Harun Küçük, an assistant professor in the department, offered an example of what this might look like. “Oh, you assign X? Why don’t you consider Y, which would be more globally sensitive and teaches whatever you want to get across equally well,” he says. “People need sources they can grab off the fly.” 

Dharan notes that examining the curriculum from a global angle is not isolated to the department but part of a broader trend. “Undergraduate students now are more conscious about the diversity of authors and geographical distribution on syllabi,” he says. “It’s something that they ask for.” 

Associate professor Projit Mukharji, who directs the health and societies major, wanted to reconsider “the idea that students have some deficit that we need to fill,” he says, and instead look at what students have to offer the course. “Flipping that can become another way of decolonizing the curriculum.” 

Samantha Stein of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, was one of three undergraduate students participating in the workshop. She says, “the opportunity to be vulnerable with people who are typically in positions of authority over me and to appreciate their uncertainties about teaching” helped her to understand that her professors were working to get beyond their own learned biases. 

Tomar praised the students’ engagement, saying that the “comments, observations, and questions coming from undergraduate participants made it clear that students are not blank slates but active collaborators in our classrooms.” 

Going forward, the group plans further collaborations, including team-teaching, writing joint papers, and future conferences. “It’s not just about the one workshop,” Dysart says, but “the idea of building a collaborative research and teaching community.”


Robert R. Aronowitz is chair and Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences in the History and Sociology of Science Department in the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Arts and Sciences.

Sebastián Gil-Riaño is an assistant professor in the History and Sociology of Science Department in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.

Harun Küçük is an assistant professor and undergraduate chair of the science, technology, and society major in the History and Sociology of Science Department in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences. 

Projit Bihari Mukharji is associate professor and director of the health and societies major in the History and Sociology of Science Department in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences.