How to incorporate diverse texts in your syllabus?
Incorporating texts by authors from under-represented groups can be tricky. It is vital that the syllabus makes the authors’ backgrounds salient to the students – after all, challenging the stereotype can only happen if the students are aware that the authors they read are not stereotypical.
But how conspicuous should one be about including diverse materials? It is not yet clear whether it is best to be very explicit and discuss underrepresentation issues in every class; or whether it is best to simply include authors from underrepresented groups without comment. A reasonable case can be made for each approach, and what is most effective will of course also depend on the teacher, the students, and the subject matter (to note just a few factors). Below, Katharine Jenkins (Cambridge) and Jennifer Saul (Sheffield) offer some further advice, based on research described in their forthcoming paper.
What are some potential pitfalls to avoid?
- Giving the impression that works by members of under-represented groups are marginal, or less important., by:
- Putting them in the final week
- Making them optional rather than required
- Giving the impression that members of marginalised groups only write on certain topics, by only using works about topics stereotypically associated with the author’s social group — e.g. women authors on emotion, or on feminism.
- Taking the works in question less seriously by:
- Subjecting their work to less critical scrutiny than others
- Subjecting their work to more critical scrutiny than others
- Conveying that you take the work on your syllabus by members of underrepresented groups to be sub-par, by:
- Saying so explicitly.
- Grumbling about political correctness
- Stating that these works are interesting only because of the group membership of their authors
What are some useful things to do?
- Use full names rather than initials on syllabus.
- Use images of all authors discussed in lectures on lecture slides. (If you only include pictures of members of underrepresented groups, this singles them out as somehow different, and indicates that their appearance is more important than the appearance of the white men.)
- Particularly if you have not managed to achieve the sort of demographic balance that you would like, talk about philosophy’s demographic problems and about efforts being made to improve the profession. Share some links on the topic. (Include your syllabus improvement efforts when discussing efforts being made. But don’t make it sound like people are only on the syllabus because of their identity.)
- Don’t ignore the problematic (racist, sexist, etc) content of readings on the course. Discuss it. Ignoring it tends to convey that this is not an important fact.
The Diversity Reading List aims to help you address these issues:
- In all list entries, author names are links to their profile pages, where you find and download their photos to add to your lecture slides.
- Adding profile links to the electronic version of your syllabus will make the authors easy to look up, thus making their group membership salient.
- Our About page offers a short bibliography of texts discussing under-representation in philosophy.
- Our Network page will guide you to other pages where you can find more relevant materials.
Some conceptual points
The approach we take when diversifying our syllabi might depend on how we understand the nature of the problem. Below, Luvell Anderson and Verena Erlenbusch (Memphis) discuss four ways to approach the diversity problem as a conceptual problem, all of which might be useful in appropriate circumstances.
The Critical Model (see example)
Canonical texts are flawed but contain valuable insights for all. In order to unearth that value, a corrective must be applied. This can be done by incorporating texts that offer a critical perspective on canonical texts.
Pros: Makes visible the experiences that are disregarded by canonical texts.
Cons: Merely offering marginalized voices as a critical perspective still makes the questions and concerns of canonical philosophy determinant of what counts as legitimate philosophical inquiry. Legitimate philosophical inquiry, including legitimate critique, addresses the concerns driving the inquiry, which is, however, exclusionary. Marginalized perspectives continue to be excluded.
The Reform Model (see example)
The presentation of critical perspectives is not enough. What is needed is a reform of the standard picture of philosophy: disrupting the canon and placing marginalised perspectives in the center.
Pros: Gives a broader picture of what counts as legitimate philosophical inquiry, which can accommodate marginalized voices and concerns.
Cons: Still seeks to create a unitary philosophical tradition with boundaries. While it is more inclusive, it nevertheless excludes things that some might want to include.
The Pluralist Model (see example)
Different traditions are so conceptually incompatible that we cannot hope to integrate them in a unitary tradition. To avoid the risk of exclusion, we have to juxtapose different philosophical traditions.
Pros: Shows important differences between the various traditions.
Cons: The pluralist model is impractical as it is difficult to adequately present multiple traditions in a single course. If the pluralist model presents a tradition and alternatives to it, then it is hierarchical and thus exclusionary. If the pluralist model presents various traditions as equally valuable, it relies on an anarchist assumption that is not obviously warranted.
The Abolitionist Model (see example)
The very idea of a canon is conceptually exclusionary. The conceptual problem is so entrenched that the very notion of a philosophical tradition must be abandoned altogether.
Pros: Offers a maximally inclusive view of philosophy.
Cons: Even on this model we need to make decisions about which sources, themes, or questions to include. These choices are determined by judgments of what is valuable and what is not. Moreover, over time these choices may lead to the appearance of a canon.
If you have questions on this topic, or would like to offer your own suggestions on best practice in including diverse materials, please write us on firstname.lastname@example.org.