Ideas on Teaching Diversity (Doyle Symposium Proposal)

By: Ayan Mandal

April 20, 2015

Everyday I read the news is another day that I become more convinced that our society is far from the mythical post-racial utopia. Outside our campus, we see the effects race has on everything from dating to court decisions. Inside our campus, underprivileged students overcome subtle prejudices and study extra hard just to keep up with their peers from private schools. Yet, we are unified as a university with the collective privilege to attend one of the world’s best colleges, a privilege that comes with various costs. Aramark employees are underpaid so that our university can afford to fund high quality research. Our own neighborhood gentrified away African-Americans in the 1940s. Whether we want to talk about it or not, our lives are embedded with inequalities.

Ignoring these inequalities and pretending that persons don’t come with a color, a sex, or a sexual orientation begets powerless ignorance. Perhaps we exaggerate the differences between humans of the same species, but social justice is not achieved by mere color blindness. To attack these systemic problems, we must first understand them. We must learn their histories and sociologies, and such education should not be hard to find at a high caliber university like ours. Since every student inevitably lives in an unequal world, every student should take at least one class that addresses the implications of these inequalities.

I am advocating for the addition of a diversity requirement to our General Education requirements. The requirement for which I am advocating is structured differently from the already proposed two-course requirement where current Gen Ed courses would modify their syllabi to address pluralism [1]. I would argue that forcing current Gen Ed courses to squeeze diversity into their curriculum reduces the autonomy of professors who teach those classes and disrespects an issue that deserves its own arena. However, before I reveal my plan, I would first like to address the problems with adding onto our already expansive Core.

There’s a reason why we require each student to pick at least one major to graduate. Only experts can have a truly positive impact on the world. Think about the amount of expertise it would take to plan the construction of a building. Imagine how many classes the architect behind it had to take to be able to account for every arcade and every arch. At some point, the architect must have specialized, dedicated herself to her discipline. Likewise, students must specialize to a certain subject. Adding onto the General Education requirements could impede this specialization by forcing students to take classes in subjects that have nothing to do with what they want to do.
Furthermore, students come to Georgetown with so many ambitions; requiring a student to take another class would get in the way of her plans to double major, minor, and be pre-med. Other students face significant financial pressure and want to graduate early. Many students balance academic classes and internships; requiring a student to take more classes might disrupt this balance.

We also need professors to teach these classes: professors who are similarly starved of time. A diversity class must have a relatively small classroom to be effective; so numerous professors will be needed to teach so many classes. The amount of professors needed to teach "Problem of God" and "Biblical Literature" is a good estimate as to the number of professors it would take to teach these classes. For the Fall 2014 semester, 14 professors taught "Problem of God" and "Biblical Literature" combined; therefore, to reasonably expect all students to take a diversity class, at least 14 teachers will be needed.

Finally, perhaps the most important question is, what will these student learn and how will it apply to their lives? Will they read Judith Butler and about how “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure and…”? Perhaps the ordinary classroom isn’t the correct place to attack these social justice issues. Students tend to detest classes once they become mandatory, so we need to find a solution where students can autonomously choose their own nonstandard educational experience.

I have raised several reasons why we might not want to add a diversity requirement, but now I will propose a course plan that will answer all of these objections. First, the requirement should be a one-credit pass/fail seminar that meets for just 50 minutes per week. That way, it is not too much of a burden for the professor or the student. Second, to ensure that the course material will apply to each student’s individual intellectual interest, each department or each group of departments should create their own creative course. For instance, I could imagine the Biology department creating a class titled “Eugenics and Pseudoscience” to learn about the various ways science has been perverted and abused to justify discrimination. Linguistics majors can take a class titled “Dialect Variation and Discrimination” where students reflect upon the prejudice racial minorities must overcome if their dialect is non-standard. With just a dram of creativity, any subject can be applied to the challenge of pluralism.

To ensure that enough courses are available so that all students can fulfill the requirement, Georgetown should allow students to create and teach their own seminars. Other top universities such as Tufts and Berkeley have programs where students interested in teaching can take a class on course design, and then create their own classes, which other students can take for credit. Biology students in the College can already take a class on "Science Pedagogy" and then teach DC high schoolers as a part of the RISE and Teach program. We could similarly use the Education, Inquiry, and Justice department to train interested student-teachers to create diversity courses, and then allow other students to take these courses to fulfill their diversity requirement. This plan creates the number of teachers necessary to educate the whole campus very quickly; just one curriculum classroom of 15 students turns into 15 teachers, which is already more than the number of professors it takes to teach "Biblical Literature" and "The Problem of God." Given the large interest in pluralism on campus, I am sure that more than 15 students would take advantage of this opportunity.

Finally, we should also count participating in a community outreach program like DC Reads as fulfilling the diversity requirement. Given the large percentage of the student body already involved in such organizations, such an option would decrease the number and size of classes that need to be created. Students participating in these organizations are actively engaging with the diversity outside of the Georgetown bubble, so they most likely do not need a formal diversity education. Also, imposing a diversity requirement would increase the membership of these effective organizations, mutualistically benefiting both the community and the student body.

Many students dread General Education requirements. Therefore, if we squeeze the diversity requirement into our already existing Gen Ed courses, students will dread learning about pluralism just as much. Autonomy sparks intellectual curiosity. Thus, we should provide a broad selection of creative courses for these students to take. Under my plan, a student can choose a class that approaches her major in an interesting way, or maybe a seminar that her friend is teaching. Or, she could even choose to join DC Reads and actively benefit her community. Under these arrangements, meeting the requirement is enjoyable for the person who is already actively engaged in community service, the person who is focused on her specialized academic path, and the person who isn’t so interested in social justice or her major, but just wants to take a cool class. 

Georgetown’s extensive commitment to social justice sets it apart from other universities. However, social justice activities on campus often end up just preaching to the choir, since the people who show up to those activities are typically already educated on diversity issues. If we adopt a university-wide diversity requirement, the appropriate education can reach the people who need it.

[1] That plan is discussed in this article:

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Ideas on Teaching Diversity (Doyle Symposium Proposal)