Integrating Conversations about Privilege and Diversity into Courses (Doyle Symposium Proposal)

By: Emily Coccia

April 20, 2015

As an elite Jesuit university, Georgetown not only enjoys access to a large number of young adults who will go on to work as leaders in both the private and public spheres in the United States and abroad, but also has the social justice framework needed to ground a vision of transformative education. Although demographically Georgetown could certainly be made to better reflect the American population, I chose to identify changes that could be made within the university as it stands, recognizing the good that is already being done and thinking about how best to improve upon that work. Specifically, I propose a series of interviews with professors who already promote an inclusive pedagogy to provide a paradigm for other faculty members for thinking about how to teach diversity. This project modifies the proposal set forth by the Last Campaign for Academic Reform both to address some of the pragmatic concerns its implementation would raise and to work within a framework of pedagogical “best practices”—recognizing the value of hearing from faculty already engaged in this sort of work and moving toward diverse syllabi and inclusive classroom atmospheres across the disciplines.

This year, the Last Campaign for Academic Reform has lobbied for a diversity requirement, citing the preexisting courses at Georgetown that provide an academic forum for students to engage with issues of diversity, including race, gender, sexuality, and disability. Although the sentiment behind the proposal is laudable, especially insofar as it recognizes that many professors already address issues of privilege and diversity in the classroom, it insists that the requirement fall on the students to sign up for specific courses, rather than approaching the issue on the faculty’s side, encouraging professors to design inclusive syllabi and create classroom dialogue that illuminates, rather than occludes, areas of difference.

Although the Last Campaign for Academic Reform has stressed that these diversity courses will not add to the number of course requirements, the very idea of calling them “required” courses brings with it new challenges. For one, looking at the course feedback provided through the Registrar, the prerequisite courses for majors, requirements in the core curriculum, and introductory-level classes generally receive lower markings than both upper- and lower-level electives across the disciplines. Student engagement, measured through hours spent studying and amount learned, is often significantly lower in required courses than in electives—even those electives of comparable class size and at the 100- or 200-level. While some faculty members manage to engage students fully in the materials and receive high markings across the board, these professors remain the exception. Furthermore, the Last Campaign for Academic Reform has identified 80 courses that could be cross-listed with the new diversity requirement, but many are only taught once per year and others still only once every two years, creating a practical concern about increasing the number of courses being offered at Georgetown to accommodate the influx of new students enrolling in a small sub-section of class offerings. While it is technically plausible that all 1,600 to 1,800 freshmen could fill both of their required courses over four semesters without creating new courses, the fact remains that other students already choose to enroll in these classes—students whose needs and genuine desire to be in the class should not be dismissed so quickly.

For while Georgetown has a responsibility to expose its students to the realities of privilege and oppression and begin conversations on diversity and its effects in the world, we should do so in a way that both preserves safe spaces for those students who already would have taken now-required courses and creates spaces for dialogue in courses across the curriculum, recognizing that diversity does not occur in a vacuum. As it stands now, courses such as “Intro to Queer Theory,” “Intro to African-American Studies,” and “Intro to Women and Gender Studies” often function as safe spaces for students who either identify with or care deeply about these identity groups. While there is value in disrupting the assumed status quo of unquestioned privilege, that value need not come at the expense of other students’ needs. In Tendencies, Eve Sedgwick explains her rationale for teaching one of the nation’s first classes on Gay and Lesbian Studies, describing it as a way of “keep[ing] faith with vividly remembered promises…to make invisible possibilities and desires visible; to make the tacit things explicit; to smuggle queer representation in where it must be smuggled and, with the relative freedom of adulthood, to challenge queer-eradicating impulses frontally where they are to be so challenged” (3). Her logic makes visible the stakes of this kind of education, for this theory—academic as it may be—encompasses a “field where the actual survival of other people in the class might at the very moment be at stake,” where certain students approach the material with “sharper needs, more supple epistemological frameworks” (5). However, the possibility that these classes might become requirements, become a course used to check the diversity box on MyAccess, threatens the good that they provide to many of the students on campus for whom diversity is not a box, but a lived reality. Sedgwick herself recalled facing outrage after admitting in an interview that she had designed her course with LGBTQ students in mind. Shocked by the “sense of entitlement [of] straight-defined students,” she had to confront students accustomed to enjoying the privileged status of a normative identity demanding a course “designed…for maximum legibility to themselves” (5). These Georgetown courses, however, must remain spaces designed for those students who want—and often need—to be there.

Furthermore, conversations on issues of race, sexuality, gender, ethnicity, class, (dis)ability, and other identity categories should span the curriculum, rather than only existing in isolation in an “Intro to x studies” course. Issues of privilege and oppression always occur in context, and allowing students to recognize these intersections will best prepare them to become understanding citizens who understand that the fight for social justice is not only waged in obvious situations, but also in the workplace, classroom, and everyday interactions. Thus, I propose interviewing those professors who are already integrating these topics into their classrooms and using these interviews as the basis for a resource guide for faculty to consult while designing courses and reflecting on how to promote inclusive pedagogical practices. Although many resources exist online, the most commonly referenced guide—the University of North Carolina’s Center for Teaching and Learning’s Teaching for Inclusion: Diversity in the College Classroom is quite outdated, having been written in 1997, and unreflective of the specifics of Georgetown’s campus and culture. A handbook featuring interviews with current Georgetown faculty about their own courses would not only provide a more accurate view of the current situation, but also include information for campus resources, groups, and staff that would best equip professors with the information they need to begin these conversations in their own classrooms.

I have spent the past few months working with the Doyle Fellows Program to identify and interview professors who have introduced elements of inclusive education into courses in disciplines typically assumed to be antithetical to diverse curricula and syllabi, including the Theology, Government, and Philosophy Departments. While professors often make this move quite apparent from the very title of the course—“Smart, Female, and Catholic,” “Judaism and Gender,” and “Gender in Justice”—at other times they have found ways to queer the canon, introducing units or conversations on race, sexuality, and disability, among others, into courses such as “Literary History I and II,” “Religion in American Political Life,” and “Foundations in Biology” without sacrificing academic rigor in the process. Significantly, each professor that I interviewed has discussed the importance of integrating questions of diversity as a paradigm or a full unit within the first half of the course, lest it become an obligatory “race day” or “gender class” tacked on at the very end of the semester. While many reflected on the challenges they have faced finding materials to represent authors of diverse backgrounds, especially the first time teaching a new class on a subject with fairly homogeneous “accepted” materials, such as early literary history or Talmudic studies, they also stressed the value they found in the challenge. One professor, after devoting a unit of classes to discussing the history of oppression at play in the recent shootings of unarmed black men, received emails from multiple students telling her how much it meant to them that they were able to have these conversations in a classroom setting and to see that their professors cared about these issues. Although professors may well be in contact with others within the department or a few colleagues across campus, these examples of inclusive curricula within historically whitewashed fields often remain common only within self-selecting circles. Georgetown’s faculty, having nearly doubled in size over the past few decades, no longer enjoys the ease of access that could break down departmental lines to allow for school-wide conversations. A handbook, however, would be able to integrate resources, materials, and reflections on strategies with commentary specific to the Georgetown community, including an intimate knowledge of the typical classroom atmosphere, the school’s demographic make up, and the campus resources and offices available to help facilitate these conversations.

Most important, however, are the impacts I hope that interviewing professors and creating a resource guide could have on campus. If these interviews spark conversations among the faculty and inspire even a fraction of those who see them to think about how to integrate conversations about privilege and diversity into their courses, they will have made a significant and lasting change on campus. In Teaching to Transgress, bell hooks argues for a vision of “education as the practice of freedom,” as opposed to the standard view of “education that merely strives to reinforce domination” (4). To grapple with the legacy of injustice that President DeGioia has called us to confront, we must partake in hooks’ vision of “education for critical consciousness [that] can fundamentally alter our perceptions of reality and our actions” (195). Introducing conversations about privilege in the classroom and sculpting a syllabus to include historically marginalized voices—be they raced, gendered, classed, or sexed others—force students to question their assumptions about who has a right to be heard in the academy. As hooks explains, “Progressive professors working to transform the curriculum so that it does not reflect biases or reinforce systems of domination are most often the individuals willing to take the risks that engaged pedagogy requires and to make their teaching practices a site of resistance” (21). In asking professors to commit to making their classrooms spaces for conversations about diversity and to working toward a progressive vision of education, Georgetown would reinforce its role as a Jesuit institution rooted in social justice activism. And these conversations, in turn, would work to build trust and foster relationships across community lines and allow for the productive interchange of ideas—an ideal upon which the very institution of higher education rests. 

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Integrating Conversations about Privilege and Diversity into Courses (Doyle Symposium Proposal)