Diversifying Your Syllabus Made Easier (guest post by Simon Fokt)


The following is a guest post* by Simon Fokt (Edinburgh), who, among other things, created the Diversity Reading List, a resource for those interested in including in their teaching works by authors from groups traditionally underrepresented in philosophy.


Diversifying Your Syllabus Made Easier
by Simon Fokt

The issue of under-representation in philosophy has recently received some long overdue attention. The statistics that were uncovered are rather embarrassing and most of us probably agree that we should do something to make philosophy a discipline of equal opportunity. But what?

A year and a half ago I was asking myself that question as my colleagues invited me to join them in setting up a Minorities and Philosophy chapter at the University of Leeds. We spoke about under-representation at seminars and reading groups and I thought with frustration: as a young academic, what can I actually do to address the issue? I have no influence over who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets published. So is all this just talk?

Well, no. I do have influence over one thing: I decide what I teach. I write the syllabus for my class and can make sure that at least in my syllabus there is some equality. This might not seem like much, but is in fact is extremely important. We know that the issue of under-representation begins at the undergraduate level where the students quickly learn to perceive a stereotypical philosopher as a white guy because that is what they see. After all, most of their lecturers are white males, as are the names they see on the syllabus (Paxton et al. 2012Dougherty et al. 2015Thompson et al. 2016). If students who are not white or not male learn early that philosophy isn’t really for the like of them, it’s no wonder that they don’t stick around. And given that they are likely to experience stereotype threat and fall victim of implicit bias, trying to stick around might not be easy or attractive (Saul, 2013).

What to do, what to do…

As I spoke with my colleagues, I discovered that many of them were thinking about diversifying their syllabi, but found that they didn’t know where to begin, or simply didn’t have the time to spend on searching for new texts, evaluating them, and preparing classes. In practice, most started with the best intentions but ended up running out of time and falling back on the old tested classics who, by the way, are mainly all white men.

And so the idea quickly grew into something much bigger. I thought: what if instead of focusing on my own syllabus, I tried to remove some of those obstacles we all face? The truth is, many lectures can be supported equally well by several different texts, some of them written by authors from under-represented groups – however, such texts are likely to be less well known, harder to find, and require more work to incorporate. But what if there was a place where you could go, search for the topic of your class and find a ready list of such texts, each of them with some basic notes which could help you choose the ones you need? And thus the Diversity Reading List was born.

Over the next few months and with the generous support of the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds, four of my colleagues and I worked on making it all happen. By June we were ready with a proof-of-concept List of 100 entries in ethics. We launched it officially and were astounded by the response. In the first three days of its existence the site saw close to 6000 visitors. We have received a great deal of positive feedback from individuals, philosophy departments and institutions, and got some fantastic press on Philosophy blogs.

Surfing on the initial success, we applied for ‘kickstart’ funding to help us expand the list to a level in which it will be useful for those teaching on a broad range of philosophical topics and popular enough to attract volunteer editors, ensuring the project’s sustainability. By December we were proud to be supported by the British Philosophical Association, Society for Applied Philosophy, American Society for Aesthetics, the University of Edinburgh and the EIDYN Research Centre. Their funding allowed us to pay for the work of six Section Editors who, together with the existing team and our volunteers, added nearly 400 new texts to the List. With the last big bulk of entries added only last week, the DRL now covers not only ethics, but also a representative sample of topics in metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of science, philosophy of mind and aesthetics.

Delivered on a plate

The DRL aims to make finding relevant texts easy. All entries offer the following information:

  • Text bibliographic details
  • Abstract, publisher’s note, or a content synopsis
  • A short comment with teaching notes and suggestions
  • An indication of how hard to read a text is and whether it is more appropriate at introductory or further levels
  • Links to the paid and open access versions of the text, and to any published syllabi that use it
  • Link to the author’s web profile

You can search the list for specific texts, authors or keywords, or browse by topic in a easily navigable structure of categories inspired by PhilPapers. All texts included have been recommended by philosophers and assessed by our team who select for clarity and relevance to teaching. So while you could simply search existing databases for authors from under-represented backgrounds and find the texts you need, the DRL has done the work for you – and it gives you some basic teaching notes on top.

Following the existing body of evidence identifying inequalities with respect to gender and race, the list includes texts by authors who do not identify as cis-gender male or who are of a non-white racial background. All authors (where appropriate) have been contacted for their permission, and in cases in which we were unsure whether or not to include an author, we have followed their suggestion.

Getting involved

The DRL is a community project and yes, you can get involved! If you’d like to contribute new titles to the list, you can do so on the Contribute page. You can also join our volunteer editor team who review contributions and add new entries. If you’d like to promote us at your event, we can send you posters and fliers, or you can download them here – and please do mention us to your colleagues! Together we can really make a difference.

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