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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Grad Student
Grad Student
4 years ago

“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. 2012; Dougherty et al. 2015; Thompson 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).”

Wasn’t this hypothesis more or less disproven by Nahmias et al. about a month ago? Yes it sounds intuitive. But if the data doesn’t back it up, then we need different reasons to add diversity to our syllabi. Report

Morgan Thompson
Morgan Thompson
Reply to  Grad Student
4 years ago

My study with Toni Adleberg, Sam Sims, and Eddy Nahmias (both cited in the original post and referenced in your comment, Grad Student) did find disconfirming evidence for the hypothesis that women’s intent to continue taking philosophy courses and/or consider a major is affected by increasing the proportion of women authors on introductory philosophy syllabi. However, our study is only a single study! I wouldn’t say that we have disproven the hypothesis. Focusing just on our study and this one result, there are a few possibilities for our finding: (1) there really is no causal link between the proportion of women authors on the syllabus and women’s intent to continue in philosophy, (2) our intervention of increasing the proportion of women authors from 10% to 20% simply wasn’t high enough to make a significant impact on women’s willingness to continue, or (3) our intervention did change women’s perceptions of philosophy but there are other problems or reasons that trump this intervention and women are still less likely to continue in philosophy than men. (1) is a real possibility, but with just one study we can’t really distinguish between (1)-(3). Also, (1) would be a bit surprising because we did find that the participant’s rated fairness of the gender proportion on the syllabus partially mediated the relationship between gender and willingness to continue in philosophy. That is, responses to the fairness of gender proportion question partially account for the relationship between gender and willingness to continue (i.e., that women are less likely to be willing to continue than men). (2) might make sense because even in 2013 when the average syllabus has more than 20% women authors, women on average still disagreed that there was a fair proportion of women authors on the syllabus. Perhaps 20% is just not high enough to seem fair to the female students. Interestingly, the men on average responded at the midpoint in 2013; basically they did not find the gender proportion of authors to be either fair or unfair. That is consistent with evidence that folks (interestingly, both men and women) judge women to speak a higher proportion of the time in mixed conversations than women actually speak (study here: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=2746840).

Now zooming out from our particular study, before anyone concludes that any hypothesis has been (dis)proven, multiple studies need to be assessed. When looking at a number of studies on the same topic, we should look for replications, both exact and conceptual, of that study. If a particular study has been replicated a few times and the result is consistent with the results of the replications, we can put better faith in the original result. Inconsistent results may suggest that the original result was a false positive or false negative result. Unfortunately, we don’t have many studies in philosophy about underrepresented groups. There is little funding in philosophy for these projects and philosophy is often not included in the larger studies run by psychologists and sociologists. I hope some of this will change in the future since Sarah-Jane Leslie and colleagues’ work has been published in a mainstream science journal, but it may also require more philosophers to investigate these issues themselves and apply for large grants themselves.

One further issue with relying on just one study is that we have no idea how far those results (even if they do end up replicating) will generalize. It could be that our results are very specific to Southern public commuter universities with a high proportion of black graduates. Other studies are being run at different types of schools (e.g., liberal arts colleges) and one other group has published their results (study here: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/hypa.12150/abstract). However, their results examine women’s experiences in philosophy classrooms in Australia and ours are focused on women’s experiences in the U.S. We don’t even know if the gender gaps in these two countries are due to the same causal factors! (I do think it is plausible that some of the factors will be the same, but some factors may be unique to different countries. Consider differences in when women leave philosophy between the U.S. and the U.K.) A final empirical generalization question is whether the gender gap will have a set of contributing causes that look similar at all to the race gap(s). Fokt’s post mentions race as well as gender. Our survey does ask students whether their was a fair proportion of non-white authors discussed in their courses, but we have no yet analyzed the specifics of these questions for black and white students. It is worth noting that women did disagree more than men that the proportion of non-white authors was fair and while we did not intervene to increase the proportion of non-white authors, it is possible that (even if the intervention on gender proportion did replicate and did not appear to affect willingness to continue) an intervention on the race proportion of authors would be effective. (Of course, such an intervention would be best paired with some way to communicate that authors were racially diverse; at least in some cases it might help to include short biographies of the authors discussed in one’s class and present a photo with the biography. It would also be best not to make tokens of the non-white authors by including works by non-white authors only on race-related topics.)

Beyond exploring the replicability and generalization of these results, future work could lead to a meta-analysis of results. Meta-analyses can have higher statistical power than individual studies and determine effect sizes for results over a large number of individual studies, even ones that conflict. For example, meta-analyses were important in the recent debate about the extent to which scores on the Implicit Association Test (which are thought to be a measure of implicit bias) predict discriminatory behavior (see: http://faculty.washington.edu/agg/pdf/GPU&B.meta-analysis.JPSP.2009.pdf ; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23773046 ; http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25402677 ). I think future research is required to get a better sense of what causal factors contribute to the gender gap and the extent to which the gender gap is the same in different countries, universities, and contexts. Before this future research is done, the best we can say is that we have some disconfirming evidence for the hypothesis that the proportion of women authors on the syllabus causally contributes to the gender gap in philosophy.

Turning back to the main blog post, however, I think that Fokt’s project is fantastic! The representation of non-white and women authors in our courses is unjust. With textbooks composed of only 7% works by women authors and even less non-white authors and syllabi composed of only 10% women authors and again, even less non-white authors, there is clearly room for improvement. The Diversity Reading List will be a great resource to help get us to, at least, parity with the representation of non-white and/or women philosophers currently in the field. Report

Jessey Wright
Jessey Wright
Reply to  Grad Student
4 years ago

Everything Morgan says is spot on.

That said, if you still feel like there needs to be a reason for creating inclusive syllabi, read: Benétreau-Dupin & Beaulac 2015 ( http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/ergo.12405314.0002.003 ). Data collection need not come before action. And, as it turns out, there’s data collection and analysis that has happened in other fields that is certainly applicable to our own (some of that is covered in the above cited paper). Report

Brian
Brian
4 years ago

*One* entry on Charles W Mills for epistemology?! And what about Kristie Dotson, Jose Medina, Patricia Hill Collins, Paul C Taylor, Linda Martin Alcoff, Lorraine Code, Lucius T Outlaw; and even white people who are contributing to important epistemic conversations like Matthew Congdon, Alison Bailey, Elizabeth Harman, Sarah Lucia Hoagland, etc.

And the conversation has already shifted to not only including more authors of color, but inviting different topics of conversation that do not exclude POC.Report

Becko
Becko
Reply to  Brian
4 years ago

“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.”Report

brian
brian
Reply to  Becko
4 years ago

Did that already, just wanted to post on here too. Thank you!Report

PeteJ
PeteJ
4 years ago

It seems like a great idea, but I’d worry that if the list includes people on the basis of gender and race rather than quality of ideas and arguments then it might end up no more philosophically diverse than the old list, and might not even be as good. Not sure how one would address this though. Report

Olga
Olga
Reply to  PeteJ
4 years ago

I’m more worried about unqualified people teaching excellent authors of Color and other underrepresented peoples. Report

JT
JT
Reply to  PeteJ
4 years ago

Worry not, since the DRL project is explicitly seeking references for works by thinkers from underrepresented groups that may support philosophical lectures just as well as the straight white dude classics. From the post: “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.”Report

Ray
Ray
4 years ago

“It seems like a great idea, but I’d worry that if the list includes people on the basis of gender and race rather than quality of ideas and arguments then it might end up no more philosophically diverse than the old list, and might not even be as good. Not sure how one would address this though.”
-This is exactly the problem with philosophy. Do we have these same worries about white, male scholars?Report

PeteJ
PeteJ
4 years ago

Good question, Ray. If I understand it correctly I’d say we should have. Report

Simon Fokt
4 years ago

Thank you for all your comments! Here are a few quick replies, largely confirming what some of you have already said:

1. Brian: The DRL is a developing resource run by volunteers. We’ve only just started and we are fully aware that we are many more texts worth adding – and the order in which we add them will depend on which areas we have most expert volunteers in. Thanks for your suggestions, we’ll start working on them soon! And please use our Contribute page to send us more!

2. PeteJ: This is why we are careful when selecting the texts and try to offer some teaching advice with them. We would only advocate using high quality texts – doing otherwise would be counterproductive as it would likely convince the students that non-white-male philosophers are those people who produce substandard arguments. Some judgement calls are needed in the process, but as others have mentioned, those are no different than the calls we have to make with respect to white male authors. At the end of the day, it’s your call, and we just hope that our selection and comments will help you make it.

3. Grad Student, Morgan and Jessey: You explained it much better than I could, thank you! All I can add is this excellent picture by Joel Pett: http://i.imgur.com/up6yu.jpg Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

Great picture!! It makes an excellent point. Report