I never wanted to be the kind of person who had a non-inclusive curriculum. I am of the lefty, hippy-dippy, queer, equality-loving, anti-racist, anti-ablist, anti-lookist, anti-anti-semitism, gender-equal, anti-colonialist, anti-all-the-bad-things, pro-all-the-good-and-kind-things persuasion and it always bothered me that the classes I attended as a student had almost exclusively white, male, straight, Christian curricula. I was going to do it differently.
Then I got to design my first curriculum. I was also preparing for an important exam and finishing a conference paper. I was slightly behind with my PhD work. And I needed to write a journal article. I was inexperienced, nervous, and running out of time. What do you do when you are nervous and under pressure? You fall back on what you know. To play it safe, I taught the texts I had been taught at university and ended up with precisely the kind of curriculum that I had always
wanted to avoid: a white, straight sausage-fest of a reading list. At the time, I didn’t even realise it. Indeed, I felt really good about my curriculum because I had managed to include a text by George Eliot and one by Oscar Wilde – a gay, white man and a straight, white woman who assumed a male nom-de-plume. So my curriculum wasn’t entirely male or straight. Still it was all white but nobody noticed (nobody apart from me, in retrospect).
Why was my curriculum white?
The simple answer is that it was white because it was easy. This is what I never understood as a student. My teachers weren’t necessarily presenting me with these all-white, all-male, all-straight curricula because they were evil, they were doing it because they were busy. If you have too many classes to teach, papers to write, funding to apply for, money to worry about and potentially a spouse and kids to take care of you end up doing what everybody else is doing, what you were trained to do. You don’t have to be racist, sexist, or queer-phobic in order to have a non-inclusive curriculum, it’s enough that your teachers, or their teacher, or their teachers’ teachers were. Under pressure, the status quo reproduces itself. As a white, straight male once said (purportedly): “For evil to triumph, all that is necessary is for good men to do nothing”. For non-inclusivity to triumph, all that is necessary is for equality-loving inclusive humans to be lazy or overworked.
So how do you fix it?
Well, the easy answer is: study something inclusive. If I had studied gender studies, queer theory or post-colonial literature, I wouldn’t be facing this problem. If the curriculum I experienced as a student had been designed with a focus on marginalised experience, I would now fall back on this wealth of inclusivity – and credit where credit is due, I had one fantastically inclusive tutor who supervised an undergrad dissertation I wrote on Carol Ann Duffy’s female, queer poetry (thanks @). Yes, sometimes, I regret my decision not to study something more aligned with my politics. And I am now slowly moving in that direction, partially, thanks to my students (I had the great fortune of teaching writing skills to someone working on Maori literature and to tutor two students working on gender metamorphosis).
But the truth is that my academic path wasn’t a mistake but the result of a decision. I work on the intersection of Victorian literature, philosophy and theology. I couldn’t have chosen a whiter, or more male-dominated subject if I had tried to. And maybe I did try to. Maybe, part of what attracted me to my topic is that my identity doesn’t fit in. I am a German, Jewish Atheist working on Victorian High Anglicanism and I love it. Philosophy and theology fit the rigid, logical way my brain works. And sometimes it is my mastery of these traditionally male realms that feels just that little bit extra-subversive.
So no, my realisation that given my academic upbringing and my topic-choice I naturally fall back on non-inclusive reading lists has not led me to abandon my field of study for the more colourful pastures of post-colonial literature or gender studies. Instead it has made me try harder to be a rainbow beacon of inclusivity in the homogenous, white dearth I study. This term, I am teaching a class on philosophy and the novel of ideas. Writing a reading list for that class could take me all of ten seconds and it would include Goethe, Voltaire, Carlyle, Froude, Dostoyevsky, Sartre, and Nietzsche. Preparing for that class would take me a day, since I know these guys and their texts by heart. And it would be a good class, too. Stimulating, interesting, challenging – all of the things – but it wouldn’t be an inclusive or diverse one.
So this is where the real work begins. At first I struggled to find authors that represent both the novel of ideas and the diversity my curriculum lacked. So I asked my friends who do post-colonial or gender studies and I asked the hive mind on facebook and collectively we came up with a long list of works I had never heard of or at least never read. And yes, I transformed a days worth of preparation into weeks of additional (unpaid) reading that I could have used for my thesis. But I also ended up with a reading list that includes such works as: Ralph Elliosn’s Invisible Man, Jo Walton’s The Just City, and Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. At first, I was secretly afraid I was diluting the rigidly philosophical pool but the truth is that Mishima’s Sailor is as mind-boggling a novel as any I had originally on my list. And Jo Walton deals with ideas that never occurred to any of the guys on my old list, precisely because they never experienced the struggle for equal-significance.
I am not sure if this story has a happy ending. For now it does. But what happens when instead of a couple of classes a year, I have a full teaching position. Could I do all this unpaid work once I have to bear the brunt of academia in the age of austerity, with all the overwork it entails. Even now, I wonder whether with the hours and hours of additional, unpaid preparation, I am unwittingly validating and supporting a culture of overwork. But I’ll leave this ethical conundrum for another day. For now, I’ll just keep on reading Toni Morrison, John Jacob Thomas, Adichie and Radclyffe Hall to furnish my stock of non-white, non-male, non-straight authors for the rainy day when I need to write a curriculum under pressure again. Sometimes, you just have to go the extra mile to stick it to “the man” and his straight, white brethren.
I welcome all corrections, suggestions and amendments. Inclusivity is a kind of progress not a stable state, so tell me: how could I do better?