When senior Paola Gilliam took a cross-listed philosophy and religion course, she noticed something about the required course readings: a lack of representation. All of the texts were written by white people, mostly men.
Gilliam, the co-presidenta of Carolina Hispanic Association, pointed this out to her professor. She was told that the course focused on Western philosophy, so the kind of work published on this material was generally written by white European males. Gilliam said many of her courses' readings lacked diversity, which can affect the inclusivity of the classroom.
“I think if you’re of a different experience, then you’re going to wonder, ‘Why am I not being represented in that?’” Gilliam said.
When thinking about incorporating diversity into universities, administration often first look at recruiting students and faculty of a variety of backgrounds. But English professor María DeGuzmán said diversity reflected in the course syllabus matters, too. She said there is a tendency for course readings in many different fields to reflect the perspectives of Euro-American men.
“The syllabus in some ways gives people a sense of who matters, what matters, who gets to talk, whose ideas count,” DeGuzman said. “I think it behooves us, regardless of what the subject matter is, frankly, to try to create diversity in what is assigned and in terms of who is doing the writing.”
In the English department, the core courses for majors focus on British literature, while more globally-focused courses can be taken later in the course of study.
DeGuzmán said, for example, a professor teaching Shakespearean literature, which on the surface seems to lack opportunities for syllabus diversity, can introduce readings and discussions having to do with his perspectives on women, race and slavery.
Students from some colleges have recently taken a stand against homogeneity in their course syllabi. In 2016, over 150 Yale students signed a petition urging the English department to diversify curricula. In 2017, Cambridge students studying English mimicked this call to action, while Hamilton College created requirements for professors across all disciplines to discuss diversity and inclusion in their courses.
Kelly Hogan, a biology professor and assistant dean of instructional innovation, said professors can incorporate diversity into their course content even if the field has historically been dominated by one group.
“While many foundational readings, works of art, or scientific studies may be from a homogenous group due to the history of our fields, I think we can get creative about adding different experts to our syllabi through blog posts, commentaries, videos, interviews, news stories, photographs,” Hogan said.
Even in STEM fields, diverse course content matters. In her textbook writing, Hogan tries to seek out scientific studies from underrepresented groups and include their pictures.
She said even non-traditional course materials like videos can affect the ideas students have about representation in certain fields.
“I recently observed a class in which short snippets of experts were shown via videos,” Hogan said. “Almost all of them were males, and it instantly struck me, as a woman, that it was sending an implicit message that this was a field best suited for men."
Philosophy department professor and diversity liaison Mariska Leunissen has run into this problem, too. She said philosophy excludes people of color and women because of who has historically dominated the field and who is reflected in course syllabi and on the faculty.
“On the face of it, philosophy is exclusionary,” Leunissen said. “It’s not for people who don’t look like your stereotypical male white professor with the beard and stuff. You might look around, and you don’t find anyone who’s like you — not on the syllabus, not in front of the classroom — and so we’re trying to change that.”
The philosophy degree at UNC does not require taking a non-Western philosophy class, and only one course in the department fulfills a Beyond the North Atlantic general education requirement: Asian Philosophy. More options exist for learning about diversity within the United States, such as courses focused on gender, race and class. While these types of courses are not required for majors, students can take them as electives toward their degrees.
But overall, curricula at liberal arts colleges have shifted toward a more global perspective in the last 50 years, according to Frank Baumgartner, a political science professor and member of the dean’s faculty diversity advisory group.
“It used to be that what was considered to be the object of academic inquiry tended to be much more Euro-focused,” Baumgartner said. “Today they’re much more global, and so since they’re much more global, there’s going to be a much wider range of relevant authors.”
Baumgartner said he sees noticeable effects on a class when he introduces more course readings with writers of many backgrounds.
"It attracts a much more diverse set of students, and it promotes much livelier discussions," he said.
DeGuzmán has noticed a similar effect.
"If you do have a diverse syllabus, then I've noticed, in fact, students feel more emboldened to speak and to contribute, and they feel like whatever we're calling culture is something they're already a part of," she said.
Sabrina Burmeister, the director of faculty diversity initiatives, said having a faculty from many different backgrounds can result in more inclusive classrooms overall.
“If you recruit faculty from a variety of backgrounds, they’re much more likely to be familiar with different ranges of materials within their field and are much more likely to then represent that, not just in course content, but also in terms of being a role model to the classroom,” Burmeister said.
Gilliam said she wants increased diversity in course readings, but doesn't want professors to treat diversity as a checklist.
“Not necessarily ‘Oh, I have to have one person with this experience that writes, or one person with this experience,’" she said. "I wish that more professors or academics in general would kind of reflect on the work that they’re doing and the syllabuses they’re creating and just think, ‘Is this representative of whatever I’m trying to teach?’”
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