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.
How not to overdo it: Backfires and trade-offs in curricula diversification
In diversifying our curricula, we need to be cautious: mistakes can not only thwart our efforts, but also confirm the worries of sceptics and support their resistance. Ian James Kidd (Nottingham) outlines two difficulties to take into account.
Example: History of Philosophy: Ancient to Modern, a recently renovated Nottingham module.
We created a more culturally diverse module which also featured many more philosophers of colour by including, for the first time, topics and themes from Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Afro-Caribbean philosophies. But this came at the cost of:
- Decreasing the gender diversity
- Omitting Islamic and Jewish philosophies represented in previous iterations of the course
- Omitting typically marginalised traditions such as Renaissance humanism, pragmatism, and phenomenology
Since we will almost certainly want to include far more in our courses and curricula for which we have space, time, and energy, diversifying involves trade-offs. Some of those can problematically fall between intellectual diversity (e.g. representing historically and currently marginalised figures, traditions, methods, perspectives, and disciplines) and demographic diversity (representing philosophers from marginalised social groups), not least because most traditions typically under-represented in Western departments were deeply structured by sexist biases.
What can we do?
- Include critical historiography of philosophy into history of philosophy courses, informing students about the role of contingent gendered, racial, and cultural biases in shaping the philosophical canon.
- Seriously reflect on the sorts of diversity that one wishes to promote, including an open conversation between staff and students about which should take priority.
- Offset the lack of one sort of diversity within one course by offering it in another reliably popular course.
Example: Philosophy in the Contemporary World, a newly introduced Nottingham module.
We created an applied philosophy module devoted to topical, contemporary issues – implicit bias, the renaming of statues, ‘post-truth’ and the media, structural racism, and so on. But this had two backfire risks:
- Promoting a ‘Right on!’ conception of philosophy as a subject that reiterates and affirms contemporary moral, social, and political attitudes. Philosophy might thus become a mere mirror of students’ entrenched views, its role reduced to cheerleading rather than criticising.
- Promoting a tangibly politicised conception of philosophy. This may createtensions with the fair-mindedness, representativeness, and balance constitutive of our roles as teachers.
A backfire is an unexpected, unintended, and undesired consequence of an action – one that undermines one or more of the original aims of the action. If the aims of a philosophical education are to challenge our preconceptions, promote critical self-reflection, and nullify our tendencies to groupthink and dogmatism, certain diversification efforts can be at risk of backfiring. Two tendencies, in particular, are often evident among students reacting to newly ‘topical’ and culturally diversified curricula:
- Neophilia – assertive preference for novel topics, themes and figures coupled to open refusal or reluctance to study historical figures and debates unless they are of clear pertinence to contemporary concerns.
- Xenophilia – an uncritical enthusiasm for culturally ‘other’ topics, themes and figures, usually coupled with dogmatic scorn for traditional Western philosophy. (A student of mine said they “hate the Westerns” and instead “love anything Asian”).
What can we do?
- Emphasise that the philosophical agenda is not exhausted by topics of contemporary interest and concern. This can be done within the module or in other modules within the curriculum (assuming students take those modules).
- Exemplify and encourage critical engagement with ‘non-Western’ traditions, not least by challenging crass, lazy, stereotypical, orientalist perception of them as an undifferentiated mass of intellectual exotica.
- Take more than usual care to promote a properly critical perspective on those issues (e.g. by presenting students with potent challenges to their attitudes and presuppositions and calling out examples of failures, by others, to do so).
- Take more than usual care to be open and transparent about the political and other values informing the curriculum. Initiate open discussions about the role of these values in shaping the curriculum.
We need to seriously consider effective ways to think about the trade-offs and backfires generated by the interaction of our values and priorities and the very real constraints of time and space. After all, we’re only just getting started on the curricular diversification of philosophy – there will be more and more to include and harder and harder choices to make.