A need for more diverse texts in humanistic disciplines

Opinion by Mina Shah
Jan. 25, 2016, 11:59 p.m.

I’m currently a senior here at Stanford. And I am a classic Stanford kid in that I tend to take on too many things each quarter, including, but certainly not limited to, units. Despite this fact, I find myself in the winter of this, my senior year, still taking requirements in order to graduate. Now, this is pretty crazy, considering that I’m a comparative literature major, which has 65 units’ worth of requirements and that I’ve finished over 180 units at this point.

Nonetheless, I am currently working on finishing two classes that are required for my major to graduate. For these two classes, there are 18 total books: one by a person of color, two by women, and the rest by white men.

That’s terrifying.

The ratio is so heavily tipped in a direction of favoring authors of privileged backgrounds that one might even think that they were purposefully orchestrated to be so unilateral.

And it’s not just terrifying because I will probably continue to be bored out of my mind for the rest of the quarter. It’s terrifying because we are reinforcing white supremacy in our classrooms, in classrooms that tout diversity and inclusion to board members, to alumni, to donors, to the public and (worst of all) to prospective students and their families.

By holding up and giving extra value to certain kinds of literatures over and over and over again throughout the ages in each and every higher education institution in this country, we devalue all of the literatures that we insist on not teaching or forget about teaching each time we don’t teach them. This would be less of a problem if, statistically speaking, different literatures got the same amount of stage time overall in major classes. If literatures from Europe and America were given majority syllabus space the same number of times that literature from South America or Sub-Saharan Africa or North Africa or South Asia or East Asia (still all problematic and imperialistic categories, I realize) were given majority syllabus space in major classes, that would be okay. Unfortunately, this is not how things tend to work and we only see the validation of literatures from Europe and White America time and again.

Another problem with having such homogenous syllabi is that this decreases the likelihood of us being able to use the texts and the knowledge gleaned from our classrooms as political instruments. The deeper into a single rabbit hole our classes take us, the easier it is to study things to the point of abstraction where they are no longer useful in the real world. The fact of the matter is that we live in a society so broken by inequalities that we cannot afford to study things to a point of abstraction at which they are no longer useful in working towards healing today’s society in some way or another.

The crafting of a syllabus is a difficult enterprise that  takes lots of time, attention and skill to execute. I recognize that my professors put a lot of time, effort and care into the crafting of my education. But I wish they would take some of the effort that was put into making the class an appropriate depth of material from a particular geographic area and concentrate it further. Many of these classes lack the breadth they need, especially when a class is supposed to be a survey course, or a major requirement, especially in a humanistic discipline.

When classes, especially classes that are supposed to be comparative classes or interdisciplinary classes, end up having syllabi that are focused in a single geographic area, the University is failing us, the students in the classes. When those classes end up with non-comparative focuses, we, the University, are failing our students, our stakeholders and everyone who believes that one can receive the highest kind of quality of education here. When those classes end up with non-comparative focuses, we discourage creativity and exploration in classrooms by demonstrating that the already-explored fields are the only ones worth addressing and re-addressing in philosophical, theoretical and research endeavors.

But what can we do? We, the students, can go to our professors and our department chairs and demand (or politely ask for) change. The faculty can reach out to our grad students to help supplement readings and lectures in areas that they do not feel comfortable teaching themselves. We, the stakeholders in the institution, can send letters to department heads expressing our displeasure at the slanted nature of our system of education, because we have a responsibility to care about the quality of our education and have full free choice in what opportunities are available to us. After all, the wind of freedom blows here, doesn’t it?


Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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