Communicating demographics in teaching

[A post by Jenny Saul and Katharine Jenkins]

A reader writes:

“As I often do, I am going to be teaching an introductory level class with lots of work by authors who identify as members of groups who are underrepresented in philosophy. While students are very likely to notice the name of some and thus assume their belonging to such groups because of the name, others of these authors are underrepresented for reasons that are not visible and some might be visible but are not pictured on the dust-jacket. I am wondering how others mention/bring up and to what extent they highlight the identities/group membership of the authors in class and how they do so. It is not at all unusual, where I teach, that students will assume hetero, white, male authorship (regularly referring to authors as “he” throughout, unless corrected… and sometimes even when corrected). I am wondering if this might be something that could be brought up for discussion on Feminist Philosophers.”

This is a good question. It’s something that we are writing about, in a paper we’ve been working on. Our view is that this problem can only be solved by explicitly introducing the idea that philosophy is problematically white, male, straight, non-disabled and so on, and explaining that in order to help change this, you will be informing them when philosophers you are studying are members of under-represented groups. Then, you just give them whatever information about the philosopher you want them to have when you reach that point on the course. (Naturally, it is important only to share information that you are absolutely confident is in the public domain.)

We think that trying to draw students’ attention to this information via indirect methods such as including pictures in course slides or other materials will not only be difficult to carry out with relation to non-visible identities, but may actually backfire. If students notice that you are publicizing this information, they may well be inclined to wonder why you are doing so. Given background circumstances of sexism, racism, heterosexism, and so on, the motives they attribute are likely to be problematic ones. For example, they may think that you are choosing to tell them that a certain author is Black because you find it surprising (hence comment-worthy) that a Black person is successful in philosophy, or because you are trying to establish your own non-racist credentials, or more generally to show that we live in a post-racial era. By stating your motive explicitly, you block these problematic assumptions.

Bringing up the problems of racism, sexism and so on in philosophy could also provide a good opportunity for engaging students on these topics and pointing them towards further useful resources.

What do others think?

One thought on “Communicating demographics in teaching

  1. You may cover this already in your paper, but another worry for the explicit path might be that students believe the readings, etc., you’ve selected for focus are in part based on your belief that philosophy has the problem you mention – and thus that there’s a kind of affirmative action at work. Students may then downgrade the worth of those readings.

    Similarly, a student that fits into one or another of the underrepresented categories, and whose comments or work is praised by the professor, may worry that the praise is also in part motivated by the prof’s views on the discipline. These are familiar arguments, I’m sure.

    The “accidental” or casual discoveries of the “oh, that philosopher is ______ !” avoids this, I think.

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