Diversify your discipline: Oxford humanities and social sciences students call for a more diverse curriculum

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Oxford students from a variety of disciplines have called for departments to diversify curricula and reading lists over the past couple of weeks. Students studying Politics, History, English, Philosophy, Linguistics, and Music, amongst others, are pushing for better Black and minority ethnic representation on reading lists and to decolonise the focus of each course.

The movement, under the slogan ‘Diversify your discipline’, has collected students together to write open letters to departments with requests for change. Noting the lack of representation on reading lists and the exclusive “Euro-American/Western standpoint” of their courses, students have listed a number of requests. These include introducing “welfare structures for BAME students”; actively recruiting more black and minority ethnic graduates, researchers, and senior staff; diversifying and decolonising reading lists; and challenging the “Euro-American/Western” tradition in each of these subjects.

Politics

In an open letter (found here; you can sign here) being put together to be sent to the Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR), students noted that not one of the academics on their first year DPIR faculty reading list is black. Regarding the lack of diversity, the open letter states that:

“As students of Politics, we are consistently taught to be self-reflexive and critical of the material we encounter, which is why we would like to ignite a conversation regarding, not just how Politics as a discipline is decolonised, but how the DPIR at Oxford is actively distancing itself from an exclusively Euro-American/Western standpoint. Although it may take time and patience to obtain the diversity we wish for, the silence surrounding the construction of reading lists and course material is unacceptable”.

Commenting on this movement and the aforementioned open letter she helped pen, Ruchita Raghunath (History and Politics, St. Edmund Hall, 1st year) stated that:

“This is an incredibly important initiative that is part of a wider project to ‘Diversify your Discipline’. The initiative to diversify the politics reading list was initially begun by a group of His[tory and] Pol[itics] students after having seen the open letter to the history faculty urging the diversification of the subject. We decided to pursue a similar line with politics and got several PPE-ists involved.

“We then conducted some research into the diversity of the politics prelims and core FHS reading lists and compiled data on the percentages of white and BAME male and female scholars and also examined how texts of these authors were categorized: for instance POC and female authors were less frequently classified as ‘basic’ or ‘core’ texts and were often relegated to the ‘further reading’ list.”

In an open letter soon to be sent to the department, students emphasise “the point that little has been done to integrate marginalized BAME and female voices in the core Politics texts, often resulting in an exclusively Euro-American/Western approach the subject.

“Accordingly, in the letter we outline various reformational targets such as the inclusion of teachings on race, gender, class, and empire listed as compulsory, rather than optional and appended to reading lists and tutorial options and a regular review of reading list [sic], with close attention to adding new works that will increase diversity.

“The often global and multi-cultural nature of a politics discipline is such that the exclusion of diverse voices is detrimental to the study of the subject. As we write in the letter, this exclusionary approach is not aligned with the wider pursuit of anti-racism that the university should be working towards and impacts the worldview of an entire generation of scholars and political scientists.”

In response to The Oxford Student’s request for comment, the DPIR stated:

“As a Department we are fully committed to fostering an inclusive culture which opposes racism, promotes equality and values diversity. We acknowledge that more needs to be done to turn words into actions and to create meaningful change. Revising the Politics curriculum will be part of a larger, consultative project to reflect on, measure and improve DPIR’s equality and diversity work. This will be a priority for the new heads of department, Petra Schleiter and Nick Owen when they take up their positions in Michaelmas Term.”

History

Undergraduate history students at Oxford organised a document (found here) with a number of resources, open letters, and petitions. The link to the open letter to the Faculty has expired, but in its most recent statement of values (accessed July 3, 2020), the History Faculty stated that:

“We acknowledge now, with the Covid-19 crisis exacerbating existing inequalities, and racism and injustice under rightful scrutiny across the world, that we must clearly signal our commitment to acknowledging these problems and working constructively to address them.”

In response to The Oxford Student’s request for comment, the History Faculty stated:

“Following a ‘Listening Exercise’ attended by eighty students and staff, several meetings of our Race Equality Working Group, and the receipt of a number of open letters and letters from individuals, the History Faculty is planning a major project to address a range of areas around race equality in the Faculty.  This project, which will begin in October and include staff, students and external advisers, will consider the curriculum, including reading-lists, options and restrictions, as well as key issues of environment and welfare, representation and recruitment.  We are committed to continuing the conversation of this term and to bringing in changes.”

Philosophy

Recently, The Diversifying Philosophy Student Collective’s Open Letter to the Philosophy Faculty was signed by over 100 philosophy undergraduates and graduates studying at Oxford.

In the open letter, students note the shocking lack of diversity within philosophy, the syllabus and the Faculty: less than 5% of readings are written by BAME authors and a small proportion are written by womxn* authors. In one core module, Knowledge and Reality (102), there were more items on the reading list written by a single white male author, David Lewis, than by BAME authors.

Before this open letter was sent, the Philosophy Faculty Board Chair, Professor Chris Timpson, sent an email out to all philosophy students. The following is an extract from this email:

“I think we can do better in the Faculty of Philosophy. It is no secret that our proportion of BAME academic staff is very small, and no secret that we need to make it possible for more talented BAME students to study philosophy in Oxford, and as importantly, to want to study philosophy here.

“…we have already embarked on a process of seeking to diversify our syllabus – by broadening the range of topics covered in some of its central courses, by introducing new courses (on feminist philosophy, and on Indian philosophy) that we hope will become a permanent part of our offering, and by diversifying the range of authors on our reading lists.

“But what has been achieved so far is without doubt patchy and partial, and it has taken longer than it should have to reach even this point. We know that there is much more to be done on all these fronts, and that doing so will require sustained effort and attention on our part. But it simply has to be done.”

He went on to specify the Faculty’s desire for constructive discussion on “the scope and possibilities for a breadth of philosophical pedagogy in Oxford” and how that will “reflect a range of different conceptions of the nature and aims of the discipline”. Further, he noted the “need to listen to our BAME staff and students”. To achieve this, he stated that “we will be holding a special Faculty meeting next term to focus solely on these issues. I recognise that these are but first steps.”

The open letter addressed a number of the issues brought up by Professor Timpson alongside students’ concerns and requests. Rohan Kaya (Spanish and Philosophy, St Catherine’s College, 2nd year), who has spearheaded the open letter and attempts to diversify the curriculum, stated that:

“With this open letter we publicly affirm, as a group of Oxford philosophy students, that we and the faculty need to do much work to develop a more diverse faculty and curriculum…

“This includes imminently increasing ethnic minority representation on existing reading lists, and over time introducing not only specialist papers in world philosophies but also embedding them in a transformed curriculum. The faculty does not have a positive history when it comes to inclusion and rigorous diversity of thought; the purpose of our letter is not merely a criticism of Oxford’s history, but an attempt to lay out a framework for improvement on these fronts.

“It is also promising that the faculty have commented on their willingness to communicate and work with us on this issue… It is important to us that the faculty, and its students, understands why change is so necessary. We are aware that too few departments across the UK have made such changes, hence we have provided as much constructive feedback as possible in our letter.”

Speaking about the Open Letter, Philiminality Oxford, a group whose purpose is to “discuss philosophical ideas, thinkers, and approaches which are frequently marginalized in both Anglo-American and “continental” academic circles”, stated that:

“The letter was written by a collective of philosophy students which formed spontaneously over the last few weeks, adding momentum to the efforts of already present student groups (such as the undergraduate-run groups oxford public philosophy and people for womxn* in philosophy, as well as the graduate societies Minorities and Philosophy and Philiminality).”

Philiminality highlighted the need for change at the graduate level too, stating that:

“This expression and desire for change, however, must be matched with tangible action from the Faculty and the wider University. The Faculty must take action to foster BME representation among teaching staff and students, and support is also needed from the Faculty to make graduate work on underrepresented areas of philosophy possible, both financially and institutionally. There is a need for more student funding; hiring tenure-track and senior faculty who can supervise graduate students and run courses in the relevant areas, and not merely relying on graduate and undergraduate students’ paid and unpaid labour to compensate for the Faculty’s failings…

“In covering thinkers and ideas almost exclusively from the so-called ‘Western’ canon (an exception being a newly implemented, optional paper on Indian philosophy), the Faculty is complicit in perpetuating the colonial idea that people outside of Europe are supposedly incapable of thinking rationally, or doing ‘real’ philosophy. Policing the boundaries of philosophy is enshrined in a colonialist mindset about what counts as philosophy, and about who counts as credible knowers. We therefore echo the letter’s statement that Oxford Philosophy could more accurately be called ‘world-dominating’ rather than ‘world-leading’, if concrete changes are not implemented to rectify these injustices.”

All of this precedes a recent publication by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, commenting on the Rhodes Must Fall movement as well as calls to diversify the curricula, stating that: “racial prejudice is said to manifest itself in the unequal representation of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people among students and professors, and in the ‘Eurocentric’ bias of what is taught. Pulling Rhodes down is merely the first psychological blow in the war to ‘decolonise’ the curriculum.”

In response to The Oxford Student’s request for comment, Professor Timpson re-emphasised the aforementioned statement and went on to state: “I received the recent letter from the Diversifying Philosophy Collective student group with interest, and I look forward to discussion with them and with other groups.”

Linguistics

Speaking about the attempts to diversify the linguistics faculty and syllabus, the linguistics faculty student representative, Jamie Slagel (Philosophy and Linguistics, Jesus College, 2nd year), stated that:

“Our aim is to ensure that the linguistics course includes more diverse and global areas of focus, that our reading lists include authors from a diverse range of backgrounds, and to diversify the Faculty. For example, considering Paper XIII which all Prelims students take, although over 50% of the authors are women, at least 85% are white. Our Faculty is also very white and we need to do better to break the cycle which ensures that the syllabus, students and Faculty look very white and very Euro-centric.

“That said, we are greatly inspired by our current Faculty Board Chair, Aditi Lahiri, who is Indian-born and, alongside being a Fellow of the British Academy (2010), was honoured with a CBE at the start of the year. We believe we need more students and staff like Aditi in our Faculty.

“Initial conversations with the Faculty Board and with Professor Lahiri and Professor Matt Husband (Chair of the Linguistics Athena SWAN committee for equality and diversity, and Faculty Chair) have been very positive and constructive. Plans are underway to diversify the reading lists, to change the course structure so as to include more global perspectives and languages, and to diversify what is a very white Faculty.”

In response to these efforts, Professor Lahiri organised an initial meeting with students reps and stated that “[t]his is serious business and I want to get it right.”

Following The Oxford Student’s request for comment, the Faculty stated that:

“Linguistics as an area of study, by definition, is diverse. From sound patterns to grammar, unless we cover the world’s languages, we would not be doing justice to structures that underpin linguistic systems worldwide. Notwithstanding the nature of the subject, while our Faculty members come from a wide range of backgrounds, we are strongly aware of the need everywhere to continue to encourage and enable diversity, among students and staff. Currently, we are in conversation with our student representatives to ensure proper scrutiny of our reading lists to ensure that we have a wide a coverage as possible.”

English Literature and Language

Following the English Faculty’s statement on racism, students called to diversify the syllabus and Faculty. Commenting on this, Professor Ros Ballaster, the Faculty Board Chair for English, told The Oxford Student:

“We have an Equality and Diversity Committee with student and staff representatives and racial equality is its high priority. The Chair of Faculty Board has set us [sic] an anti-racism action group with a team of Faculty members to lead on change. Early next term (MT 2020) we will be consulting more widely and fully with students and staff on steps. We have concentrated at the end of this term and over the summer on reviewing our reading lists and syllabi so that they are refreshed ready for teaching and study at the beginning of next academic year.”

Professor Ballaster also provided detailed plans in the following areas: decolonising the syllabus, the undergraduate degree, taught graduate degrees and doctoral study, and research and public engagement. Speaking about the Faculty’s aims to decolonise the syllabus, Professor Ballaster stated:

“Our two central strategic commitments agreed in January 2019 are (i) to ensure our taught course syllabi and our teaching address the diversity and complexity of literatures in English and related languages; and (ii) to improve intake for BAME students and those from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. Language and literature do not merely bear witness, they are implicated deeply in the ways in which systemic and structural racism has shaped, and continues to shape, our histories and our societies. There is much to be done within our institutions to dismantle structures that continue to dispense privilege and access on the basis of race, and to educate ourselves about racism’s insidious reach in the world. That labour is not the responsibility of our Black students and staff. It is one we are committed to addressing together. All Faculty teachers and academics continue to grow their understanding.”

In 2018 the Prelims reading list was overhauled to reflect these aims and the FHS reading lists were diversified in Spring 2020. Professor Ballaster further commented that:

“[t]his summer (2020) all ORLO Faculty reading lists and our lecture provision is being reviewed and revised once more with explicit attention to issues of racial diversity and equality and the history of empire, colonialism and postcolonialism. We will make sure that every period paper studied from Michaelmas term 2020 has at least two lectures introducing race studies, Black/BAME voices or presences in history, writing by academics from diverse backgrounds.”

St. Hugh’s offer holders for English Literature and Language were recently sent an updated first year reading list taking into account the need for diversity. For example, with regards to Paper 2 on Early Medieval Literature, the updated list stated that “This is a revised list… reflecting on how we can learn more about questions of identity, race and religion from the medieval period.” It also noted that “After the Conquest, romances, lyrics, debate texts and dream poetry are all part of a rich intercultural and multilingual – as well as colonial – environment in Britain.” The reading list reflects greater diversity of authors than previous editions sent to students.

Professor Ballaster noted that the Faculty had “committed to an annual introductory lecture session for all 1st year students in first week of term” asking “‘How Global is English Literature and Language?’”. This week would feature “short talks covering early English, 19th century and post 1900 literatures, English as a global language, and debates about colonial, postcolonial, decolonial approaches”.

DPhil and Masters English students have also put together an open letter (accessible here). In their letter, they ask that the Faculty explicitly recognise its financial benefit from colonial extraction and labour and support “a university-wide inquiry into the financial and structural legacy of slavery and colonialism”. They also ask “that resources are committed to projects aimed at better understanding the history of the Faculty itself, including with respect to race and imperialism”.

Alongside this, they ask that the Faculty publish “Faculty recruitment and retention guidelines” to ensure greater representation. They go on to ask for the diversification and decolonisation of the practice throughout the curricula. They also “ask for the development of Faculty-specific funding mechanisms such as bursaries, stipends and scholarships to facilitate the attendance of more BAME students.”

Music

On 9 June 2020 the Music Faculty released its statement against racism which you can find here, stating that:

“The Faculty of Music stands against racism. We have a responsibility to speak out against racial injustice, not only outside our institutions, but within them as well. In acknowledging our participation in systems and ways of thought that perpetuate discrimination, we seek to dismantle those systems, and to listen to those voices that both call us to account and call for us to foster richer and more diverse musical narratives and understandings.”

In response to this, students wrote an open letter (found here) in which they state that they “are asking for one thing: a published action plan outlining the steps the Faculty will be taking to dismantle the racist systems that operate within the Faculty”. They argue that the Faculty must address racism by firstly “implement[ing] welfare structures for BAME students” and secondly by “decolonis[ing] the curriculum”.

On July 3rd, students and staff held a ‘town hall’ meeting to discuss these ideas. Talking about this, Abi Owen (Music, Jesus College, 2nd year) stated that:

“It’s a good dialogue, lots of important things [have been] raised. T[o] b[e] h[onest] each point could have been its own meeting so a lot of things were only touched upon or things were missed [because] of timing. And the Fac[ulty] seems dedicated to change even if they occasionally came across as defensive.”

On the movement as a whole, a body of music students campaigning for change stated that:

“We believe that the Faculty must address the racism upheld in its institution in two key ways. Welfare structures for BAME students must be implemented, such that support networks for the unique challenges faced by BAME students within the Faculty can be continually expanded and led by the needs of the students, without fear of dismissal, judgement or academic penalty. The curriculum must also be decolonised, with a commitment to bringing in non-white voices from the periphery in a way that promotes a truly comprehensive and inclusive musical education that the Faculty often advertises to be its strength.

“We have been thus far disappointed by the apparent lack of direct action shown by the Faculty as a whole. In an online meeting held between faculty staff, students and alumni on 3rd July 2020, the Faculty did not willingly enter into discussions regarding potential pathways for the immediate future, despite numerous requests to do so. Whilst we recognise the challenges of committing to structural change without due process, the Faculty’s often defensive stance regarding welfare, curriculum structure and access and outreach stood in direct contrast with their claims of regret regarding the testimonies of students who have experienced racial harassment.

“This, combined with the notable lack of apology regarding the Faculty’s failure to challenge the racist acts and systemic racism permeating its curriculum and institution, leaves us with much work to do in providing an environment truly welcoming to those who do so much to enrich and strengthen it. That being said, we were greatly encouraged by the positive responses from some Faculty members, and by the affirmative action to which they instantly subscribed. We are therefore hopeful that coming meetings will be met with a sincere and considered desire for concrete and sustained change from all areas of the Faculty. Given the urgency of this issue, we feel the matter should be considered with the highest priority and so should result in extraordinary Faculty meetings being held. Crucially, this dialogue will not cease at any point before, during, or after the implementation of permanent change.”

In response to The Oxford Student’s request for comment, the Music Faculty said:

“The Faculty of Music recognises our responsibility to speak out against racial injustice, not only outside our institutions but within them as well. We seek to dismantle systems and ways of thought that perpetuate discrimination and to listen to those voices that both call us to account and call for us to foster richer and more diverse musical narratives and understandings. To that end, the Faculty has held an honest and open ‘town hall’ meeting with current and former students, and over the coming months will continue discussions about how to address the points raised in that meeting and in recently received student letters.”

Student representatives of the movement to diversify the history curricula were contacted for comment. Some comments from Faculty and students were unable to be repeated in their entirety given their length; The Oxford Student received a comment over 1,200 words long from the English Faculty alone.

Image credit: Pickpik

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