Please Diversify Your Syllabi: An Open Letter to Professors

Dear Professors,

As you begin to finalize syllabi for your fall courses, I ask you to take a few minutes to do the following: tally up the number of authors you will be assigning that identify as white, and the number that identify as people of color. Do the same for gender identification. Then, I ask that you print these numbers (perhaps as percentages or in a short statement) below your list of course readings for the semester.

First and foremost, thank you to the many professors out there who are already thinking about these issues and whose syllabi reflect these thoughts. I have taken classes in which the professors have very clearly worked to diversify their reading lists, an effort which made a huge difference in my experience in the class. Thank you.

For those that find their statistics vastly underrepresenting the voices of marginalized groups, the purpose of my suggestion is two-fold. First, I ask you to reconsider the selection of course material. I know this may seem incredibly daunting, as we live in a world and academic environment with a “Western tradition” of education (read: white-male tradition of education). I realize that the core texts which our generation is expected to know tend to be written by this demographic of authors. I acknowledge that changing even one book on the syllabus will require a vast number of hours restructuring your lessons for the fall. I assert that it is worth it.

When we read books for class, there is an implicit claim that these authors have valuable information to teach us. In courses where the books are written by predominantly privileged groups, there is an implicit and incredibly detrimental claim that the voices of these groups are more valuable than those of marginalized populations. The lack of representation in the reading does not slip by unnoticed. Especially in classes where I am one of few women (my economics class last semester was over two-thirds male, and racial distribution in classes tends to be even less equal), I feel less comfortable speaking up and asking questions. The more female authors that we read or female scholars we discuss, the more I feel my voice can be heard. Diversifying the syllabus may also diversify the discussion in class, encouraging students to speak that might otherwise not feel comfortable. I recognize that finding more diverse voices can be difficult, but that does not mean they are not out there.

For STEM classes, with limited readings assigned, this work is slightly more difficult. However, it is no less important. The mere fact that most of the theorems in my Linear Algebra class are named after white men had an effect on me and my self-confidence in the class. Although renaming theorems is not a plausible solution, bringing discussion of female scientists and mathematicians of color is. Even posters identifying historical figures such as these can make a huge difference; one such poster adorns the wall of a math seminar room outside Zubrow.

I also realize that many of you may read this article and be unable to change the structure of your course. This brings me to the second purpose of my suggestion: discussion. Even if your syllabus will remain comprised of mainly white or male authors, I urge you to still print that statistic below the list of readings. Allow it to spark conversations. Devote time during class one day to discuss the types of voices that the course privileges. Talk about why this is the case. Brainstorm solutions. Let these statistics be conversation starters, not conversation enders. I know it may be uncomfortable to talk about it, but at least in my own experience, ignoring this inequality is the far less comfortable option.

These efforts are not a solution to the racism and sexism ingrained in academia, but merely a necessary step in the right direction.

Though I am writing specifically about race and gender, the inequality of voices heard in our classes expands far beyond that: I encourage you to broaden this discussion of representation to also include class, ability, non-binary gender identities, sexual orientation, national origin, and more. Additionally, I would like to acknowledge that determining how these authors identify is not a simple business, and there should always be room left for those for whom an “either/or” identification fails to resonate. I hope that the statistics can be a starting point for improvement, and not a perpetuation of the binaries within our society. This topic, too, could be an important class discussion to have for those who decide to follow this suggestion.

Lastly, I would like to take a second to acknowledge my privilege in writing this letter. Though the gender of the authors I read does not always reflect my own, I can count on my race being represented by almost all syllabi (and by my classmates, professors, administrators—you name it). This privilege both creates blind spots in my argument and makes publishing this easier for me than it might be for others. I sincerely ask that you talk to me about any problems you find with this letter. I look forward to discussing and listening.

I hope that this suggestion does not come off as a burden, but rather as a chance to improve our education. I strongly believe that the more varied the voices that are present in our courses, the more we will learn and expand our worldviews in our time at Haverford.

With trust, concern, and respect,

Leah Budson ’19

If you would like to respond to this piece, you can contact our Editor-in-Chief Hannah Cregan Zigler at hzigler@haverford.edu or submit a letter to the editor by emailing hcclerk@gmail.com.

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