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How Not to Overdo It: Backfires and Trade-offs in Curricula Diversification

by Ian James Kidd, based on: 'Diversity, Inclusion, and the Dangers of Backfiring', Joint Stirling-St Andrews Minorities and Philosophy workshop, University of St Andrews, 19 April 2019.


Overview

In diversifying our curricula, we need to be cautious: mistakes can not only thwart our efforts, but also confirm the worries of sceptics and support their resistance. Ian James Kidd (Nottingham) outlines two difficulties to take into account.

Trade-offs
Since we will almost certainly want to include far more in our courses and curricula for which we have space, time, and energy, diversifying involves trade-offs. Some of those can problematically fall between intellectual diversity (e.g. representing historically and currently marginalised figures, traditions, methods, perspectives, and disciplines) and demographic diversity (representing philosophers from marginalised social groups), not least because most traditions typically under-represented in Western departments were deeply structured by sexist biases.

What can we do?

  1. Include critical historiography of philosophy into history of philosophy courses, informing students about the role of contingent gendered, racial, and cultural biases in shaping the philosophical canon.
  2. Seriously reflect on the sorts of diversity that one wishes to promote, including an open conversation between staff and students about which should take priority.
  3. Offset the lack of one sort of diversity within one course by offering it in another reliably popular course.
Example: History of Philosophy: Ancient to Modern, a recently renovated Nottingham module.

We created a more culturally diverse module which also featured many more philosophers of colour by including, for the first time, topics and themes from Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Afro-Caribbean philosophies. But this came at the cost of:
  1. Decreasing the gender diversity
  2. Omitting Islamic and Jewish philosophies represented in previous iterations of the course
  3. Omitting typically marginalised traditions such as Renaissance humanism, pragmatism, and phenomenology


Backfires
A backfire is an unexpected, unintended, and undesired consequence of an action – one that undermines one or more of the original aims of the action. If the aims of a philosophical education are to challenge our preconceptions, promote critical self-reflection, and nullify our tendencies to groupthink and dogmatism, certain diversification efforts can be at risk of backfiring. Two tendencies, in particular, are often evident among students reacting to newly ‘topical’ and culturally diversified curricula:

  • Neophilia – assertive preference for novel topics, themes and figures coupled to open refusal or reluctance to study historical figures and debates unless they are of clear pertinence to contemporary concerns.
  • Xenophilia – an uncritical enthusiasm for culturally ‘other’ topics, themes and figures, usually coupled with dogmatic scorn for traditional Western philosophy. (A student of mine said they “hate the Westerns” and instead “love anything Asian”).

What can we do?

  1. Emphasise that the philosophical agenda is not exhausted by topics of contemporary interest and concern. This can be done within the module or in other modules within the curriculum (assuming students take those modules).
  2. Exemplify and encourage critical engagement with ‘non-Western’ traditions, not least by challenging crass, lazy, stereotypical, orientalist perception of them as an undifferentiated mass of intellectual exotica.
  3. Take more than usual care to promote a properly critical perspective on those issues (e.g. by presenting students with potent challenges to their attitudes and presuppositions and calling out examples of failures, by others, to do so).
  4. Take more than usual care to be open and transparent about the political and other values informing the curriculum. Initiate open discussions about the role of these values in shaping the curriculum.
Example: Philosophy in the Contemporary World, a newly introduced Nottingham module.

We created an applied philosophy module devoted to topical, contemporary issues – implicit bias, the renaming of statues, ‘post-truth’ and the media, structural racism, and so on. But this had two backfire risks:
  1. Promoting a ‘Right on!’ conception of philosophy as a subject that reiterates and affirms contemporary moral, social, and political attitudes. Philosophy might thus become a mere mirror of students’ entrenched views, its role reduced to cheerleading rather than criticising.
  2. Promoting a tangibly politicised conception of philosophy. This may create tensions with the fair-mindedness, representativeness, and balance constitutive of our roles as teachers.


Summing up
We need to seriously consider effective ways to think about the trade-offs and backfires generated by the interaction of our values and priorities and the very real constraints of time and space. After all, we’re only just getting started on the curricular diversification of philosophy – there will be more and more to include and harder and harder choices to make.

This teaching guide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, and is made available here with thanks to the authors and the Diversity Reading List.