Last semester, I taught introduction ethics for the first time. I introduced plenty of interaction in the classroom with focused small discussion groups. Overall, I was satisfied with how it went but there was one big disappointment: I had hoped to make this course more diverse, but I did not succeed in that goal. For one thing, I only had one non-western topic, namely the Confucian concept of jen. We also worked on the topic of the philosophy of disability, with Elizabeth Barnes' excellent article in Ethics (I have now also bought her book and hope to explore this in more depth). I think this was particularly interesting to teach, as we ended this session with the story of the woman who wanted to be blind, and I had students discuss her decision and the decision of the doctor who was willing to help her. The students gave considered, sophisticated responses. Overall, I feel the addition of diverse materials improved the course. I had about 40% readings by women authors.
Still, my overall feeling was that I did not succeed in making this course sufficiently diverse. This made me curious about several things
- What do we mean by a diverse syllabus? Women authors? Non-western philosophy? Readings by non-white/non-western philosophers? Authors with disabilities? Philosophical approaches that are traditionally marginalised such as the philosophy of disability or the philosophy of race?
- What, if anything, do we think is an acceptable minimum percentage of authors who are minorities?
- How do students respond to diverse courses? Is their engagement with the materials different?
- Why do we find it important to have a more diverse syllabus?
- Which obstacles stand in the way of having a more diverse syllabus?
Reflecting on this last question, for me the obstacles were that, as a non-specialist in ethics, I found it hard where to begin and how to find suitable materials to start teaching. Introductions, handbooks and readers don't have much diverse material. Second, I worried about having a course that was too non-standard (I wonder if others have this worry too). I felt it was my obligation to teach at least Aristotle's virtue ethics, Kantian deontology, Mill's utilitarianism,... Since semesters are only 12 weeks in the UK, this means that at least half the syllabus is already filled with white Western men. I do think my students need to learn this basic stuff, as some of them will go into graduate school or maybe will need ethics in their later career, and it would be odd if they didn't know it.
I will be presenting a paper at this conference in Nottingham in the fall where I will discuss these issues. For that, I would need to gather some data, and I think of doing this through a survey. In the survey, I would focus on a few courses: Ethics, Epistemology, Political Philosophy, Philosophy of Mind (maybe a few more but not too many more) and ask participants for each of these whether they have tried to make their course more diverse, what diversity means, and what obstacles they have faced, perhaps also some examples of things that worked well. I would be interested in hearing suggestions from Cocoon readers on what I could further include in this survey, and I would be glad if people who want to testrun it could e-mail me so I could send them a try-out version to see if everything runs smoothly.
For the survey, which I will circulate as soon as IRB approval is obtained, I am interested in all kinds of responses, ranging from people who don't think we need to specifically aim for a diverse syllabus, to people who would like to but have not yet done so, to teachers who try but face obstacles, to those who have successfully included a wide range of materials.