The Teaching Workshop: Diversity and the Canon

Welcome again to The Teaching Workshop, where your questions related to pedagogy are answered. Each post features questions submitted by readers with answers from others within the profession. Have a question? Send it to PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook.

Question: How can I balance the aims of teaching the ‘canon’ as well as addressing concerns with diversity?

Answer: Our answer this week comes from Daniel Wodak one of the organizers of a recent workshop on the topic at Princeton.

On Saturday, February 13, Princeton University’s Philosophy Department hosted a workshop on Diversifying the Canon. The aims of the workshop were somewhat inchoate. There’s a fair amount of evidence that at least some of the punctures in the leaky pipeline—the problem of women and racial minorities leaving the field—relate to how we teach philosophy, especially at introductory undergraduate levels. But what needs to change? One obvious starting point is to ensure that our syllabi integrate work by philosophers who aren’t from groups that are usually included. Beyond that, we (the conference organizers: myself, Alex Meehan and Jennifer Morton) saw the workshop as a forum to openly discuss interesting and important issues that arise when we embark on this project. We invited four speakers who have thought a great deal about these issues to kick-off the discussion.

I should say upfront that what I’ve called “one obvious starting point” is not obvious to everyone. (That’s clear from even a cursory glance at the philosophy blogosphere, as well as the syllabi philosophers make available on their websites.) Some will deny it. Others might accept it in principle, but won’t—or at least, don’t—follow it in practice. There are a fairly wide range of justifications or excuses for continuing to teach courses that are dominated by ‘canonical’ white men, and Christia Mercer (Columbia) focused on two of them.

First, that concerns about diversity are political rather than pedagogical. Christia drew on recent social psychology—especially work by Claude Steele—in arguing that subtle ways of framing philosophy as a white man’s game can undermine the academic performance of students with different social identities. Second, that it’s just too hard to diversity syllabi. This complaint is easier to make in some areas than others. Contemporary ethics has more prominent women philosophers than ancient Athens did. But for any given sub-discipline, Christia was adept at pointing out interesting places to look for more diverse sources. It’s also worth noting that there can be good reasons to establish diverse syllabi as the norm, even when we know that we should allow exceptions to be made, to shift the onus on philosophers to justify non-diverse syllabi.

Furthermore, as Christia pointed out: who and what we teach as canonical can change. Christia illustrated this point with the example of Jane Austen’s inclusion in English syllabi. Her novels were critically neglected, and considered low-brow, until they became widely taught. Such changes could occur in philosophy. As philosophers familiarize themselves with a broader array of work and weave it into their introductory courses our canon might change as well.

This connects to the central point taken up by Luvell Anderson Jr and Verena Erlenbusch (Memphis): how significantly we should change the content of our syllabi depends on whether we think lack of diversity is a superficial or deep problem. If you think that what we face is a PR problem, there’s a simple model for changing how you teach philosophy: switch out the names in the standard narrative you teach by finding a woman or person of color who makes similar points. You can then keep teaching the same content but make it more appealing to a diverse student body. The objection to this approach is that it still presents socially situated ideas as universal and unchanging, thus excluding some philosophical perspectives that do not always fit into current narratives. This points to deeper problems with the lack of diversity. Luvell and Verena went on to provide four other models for how we could teach philosophy to address, or at least ameliorate, these problems, each of which raise complicated questions about whether and how we can frame a narrative that is pedagogically and philosophically responsible. You can find slides of their presentation here.

In her presentation, Kate Manne (Cornell) noted that we frequently frame a debate in terms of affirming or negating a single proposition: for instance, that abortion is morally impermissible. But we should also be willing to engage with certain ideological and genealogical criticisms of the debate itself. Some feminists argue that the ‘pro-life’ stance in the abortion debate was, and is, often motivated less by concerns about life and more by concerns about controlling women’s bodies. They argue that the way the debate is framed already presupposes a view. We should engage with these arguments not just because of their plausibility, but because such ideological criticism can open up ways of incorporating a wider variety of sources into syllabi. When little to no work by, say, black women is published in philosophy journals, we should consider whether those perspectives can be brought in from other areas such as law, sociology, or even the media where these debates are being discussed by a more diverse array of interlocutors.

Of course, there’s plenty more to be said, and plenty of scope for reasonable debate, about many of the points touched on here. But in keeping with theme of discussing the debate itself, let me end with two points about confidence and certainty. The first is that given the complexity of issues about diversity and pedagogy in philosophy, we should be wary of blustering assertions about the nature of the problem(s), and willing to entertain challenges to widespread practices even if we antecedently think they’re implausible. We should show the same intellectual humility that is central to how we approach philosophy in how we think about pedagogy. The second is that given the complexity of those same issues, we’re unlikely to find decisive evidence, so it’s foolish to demand certainty about every aspect of an alternative proposal before being willing to try something different in our teaching.

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The Diversifying the Canon workshop was organized by Minorities and Philosophy and funded by the Princeton University Philosophy Department and the Princeton University Center for Human Values.

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Can you also help answer this question? Join the conversation in the comments below, email us, Jennifer Morton and Michelle Saint, at PhilTeacherWorkshop@gmail.com, or participate in the APA Teaching Workshop on Facebook. Remember, the best answers are constructive and specific.

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