Breaking the Cycle

I’ve been thinking about diversity in our classes a good deal lately.  Part of that is because our department is undergoing program review, and part of that involved all of us faculty putting together a list of authors we teach in our classes.  I went through that list to see how we do with diversity, and the results were not good (I’m including myself in this assessment).

I’ve spent some time thinking about why the results were what they were, especially as there have been a number of discussions about diversity in the next lately.  We all seem to be aware of a need to expose students to authors who aren’t like them, whether that’s because of gender, race or ethnicity, or sexual orientation.  Part of the problem is that we don’t have a diverse faculty; all of us are white, straight Americans.  I think there’s another problem, though.  I think we’re lazy.

When we’re given a new class to prepare, whether it was back when we were first hired or just this past semester, our first approach is to teach the same material we were taught when we were undergraduate or graduate students.  Even if we don’t remember exactly what we were taught, we have that template in our minds, and we start there.  Some professors don’t go at all beyond that list, but, if we’re honest, we all at least begin at that point.

For example, when I first taught the first half of what was then called American Literature (it’s now U.S. Literature, which is more precise), I worked from the syllabus in my head from when I was a junior in that class.  My professor didn’t include any of the Native American writings, Frederick Douglass, or any other slave narratives.  I don’t even think he taught Phyllis Wheatley.  We did cover Emily Dickinson, the lone non-male author in the entire semester.  Granted, this class is challenging as far as diversity goes, but it doesn’t seem he made much of an effort to make it so.  I added Douglass, but that was it, as far as diversity went.

Similarly, I had the same professor in a Contemporary Literature class (which he started in the late-1800s, a definition of contemporary I’ve never seen anywhere else).  I only remember one white female author (Sarah Orne Jewett) and one African-American female (Toni Morrison).  Instead, we read authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Franz Kafka, John Fowles, Kurt Vonnegut, and Philip Roth (Jewish-American, so I suppose that’s a bit of diversity).  I did better the first time I taught this class, as the time period alone helps provide more diversity, but I’ve had to consciously work over the past few years to make the class more representative of the changes that have happened over the past thirty years or so since I took the class.

Even in a class with a professor who would have openly spoke on behalf of diversity, most of the authors were white males.  In a novel course, we read Twain and Dickens and DeFoe and such writers, with only Virginia Woolf and Fanny Burney as females.  None of the authors were ethnic minorities, as if there are no novels written by anyone who’s not white.

While I focus on English because that’s what I teach, the same is true in all disciplines.  How often do we show students art by racial and ethnic minorities?  Where do they see sociologists or psychiatrists who were gay or lesbian?  Can they name scientists from before the twentieth century who were women?

Women and minorities need to see people who are like them in their courses.  White students need to see people who are not like them, to read and learn about experiences that are not theirs.  Our country and our world is becoming a more diverse place.  We are not giving our students a complete education if we leave out wide swaths of that world simply because it’s easier to teach what we were taught.



4 thoughts on “Breaking the Cycle

  1. I’ve encountered a similar dilemma when choosing contemporary artists and graphic designers to assign students to research. If anything, I guess I’ve tended to include more female and African-American artists in the past few years, as I feel they have typically been overlooked or given short shrift in many academic situations. [Some examples would include Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker, Sam Gilliam, Miriam Schapiro, Beauford Delaney, and Barbara Kruger.]


    • I tend to the same thing in contemporary literature classes, partly because there’s simply more diversity to choose from now. I also wonder, though, how I can fit more in to classes where we focus on older literature. There might have been fewer such authors, but they were definitely around.


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