The Teaching Workshop

The Teaching Workshop: Diversifying the Syllabus

It’s the start of a new academic year and The Teaching Workshop is back to answer your pedagogy related questions. Welcome back! 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: I am a political philosopher, particularly interested in gender and race issues. I often, therefore, teach about these. Not surprisingly, many of the best articles and books on issues of gender (though not all) are written by not male-identified authors, and many of the best articles and books on race (though not all) are written by non-white authors. I would like my students to see philosophy as having incredibly important non-male and non-white authors. How do I introduce the non-maleness and non-whiteness of these authors into the discussion? Many of the authors have names that don’t give away their gender or racial identity or do not have pictures on dust-jackets and, even more often, when I teach female-identified authors or those who prefer neutral gender pronouns, for example, students regularly write about them as male-identified authors. I include these texts because they are the best for the topic and goals of the class. But I also want students to see the diversity of philosophers and to see themselves as philosophers. Yet, I don’t want students to think I included these authors only because they are not male or not white.

Answers:

From Simon Fokt manager of the Diversity Reading List:

Thank you for an excellent question! Getting the right mix of authors on the syllabus is a great start, but how can we make sure that this has the desired effect on students? The syllabus must certainly make the authors’ backgrounds salient – after all, challenging the stereotypes can only happen if the students are aware that the authors they read are not stereotypical. This requires some careful balancing. Below are some suggestions on how to do this, based on my experience in editing and promoting the Diversity Reading List, and research by Katharine Jenkins and Jennifer Saul (summarized in the DRL How-To Guide).

There seem to be two main ways to approach this: implicit and explicit. The implicit route aims to communicate the authors’ backgrounds without ever actually discussing them, or why authors from these backgrounds were chosen. A few simple tricks can come in handy here. Firstly, it is good to avoid using initials only – a full name will likely convey the author’s gender and possibly their racial background. But, as you mention, some names don’t give away much and this will only get you that far. Thus secondly, you can include author photos on your lecture slides or the reading list. In a great majority of cases photos can be easily downloaded from an institutional profile page, so getting them shouldn’t be a problem. What’s important, it’s best to include photos of the white male authors as well – otherwise you might give the impression that the appearance of those from under-represented groups is for some reason more important, or single them out as different. Finally, you can include links to authors’ institutional profile pages on the electronic version of your syllabus and handouts. It’s easy enough to do and many students will likely want to check out the people they read. Since people tend to include some background information on their pages (more pictures, names of schools they went to, links to personal pages, etc.), this will give the students even more to go on. Between these three methods you are pretty certain to get the point across, and all without having to say a word.

The more explicit approach involves spending some time on discussing philosophy’s diversity problems and drawing the students’ attention to the composition of the syllabus. Its main challenges are: actually having the lecture time to spend and feeling competent enough to discuss the topic. Perhaps you could devote a lecture to discussing the influence of under-representation on various professions and institutions, mentioning academic philosophy as an example? X-phi provides a fair amount of evidence that our methods are biased towards explaining concepts as they are seen by white male Westerners only, which places the whole discipline in a precarious situation. Correcting this will likely involve giving voice to authors from other backgrounds and with different points of view, and providing a more diverse syllabus is a part of this project.

There is also an additional problem I found when creating and promoting the Diversity Reading List. When it first came out, DRL featured 100 texts in ethics. I had thought this would be the best place to start simply because ethics is the most widely taught philosophical subject. But then I received some surprising feedback: ‘Sure, we know women do ethics and other soft philosophy, but the real stuff is still for men.’ Be aware of possible ‘no true Scotsman’ arguments making use of a particular focus on female authors on feminism and non-White authors on race. Diversity is not only including non-stereotypical authors, but also ensuring that the chosen texts are not all on topics stereotypically associated with a particular group.

From Jennifer Morton:

I’m in complete agreement with Simon here. One strategy I have used that falls within the implicit approach is to put together a powerpoint slide with the faces of every author we would be reading in class. I recommend this approach not only because it conveys implicitly the diversity of voices you have included in the syllabus, but also because putting together the powerpoint itself can be a way of forcing yourself to check whether you really have included a diversity of perspectives in your syllabus. Here is a sample from a previous semester. Faces of Philosophers read in a classGranted, aiming for a diverse syllabus wasn’t a problem in this case because I was teaching Philosophy of Race. But you can still see how this strategy quite literally ‘puts a face’ to everything students are reading.

I would also strongly recommend assigning some of Miranda Fricker’s work on Epistemic Injustice. I think it’s a valuable addition to a wide assortment of courses from Introduction to Philosophy to more advanced courses such as Epistemology, Political Philosophy, Moral Philosophy, and, of course, Philosophy of Race and Gender. In my experience, students love it and are inspired by it to reconsider what we have been reading in class with an eye to diversity.

Additional Resources:

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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