Diversity in the syllabus: professors challenge mainstream academia

Gracie Ellsworth, Features Editor

On the first page of the syllabus for political science professor Lisa Mueller’s “African Politics” course is a statement that sets it apart from others: “100 percent of the readings are by African authors, and 57 percent are by women.”

Mueller is teaching “African Politics” for the first time in three years. In her syllabus for the spring, she made a deliberate effort to represent authors who can truly speak to the subject of the course while responding to the underrepresentation of female scholars and scholars of color taught in higher education.

“I am in the still uncomfortable position of being a non-African scholar of African politics,” Mueller said.

But among the community of African scholars in the U.S., she found that this was all too common. At conferences she attended on African politics, for example, few attending scholars were of African descent.

“This was just kind of patently wrong,” Mueller said.

Increasing diversity among scholars of African politics — or in any discipline — is no easy task.

“I don’t think it is a panacea to say having more African individuals in the room is going to right all social injustices that run so deep throughout history and pervade the present as well,” Mueller said. “But that’s not an excuse to not do things that we can control.”

Under Mueller’s control lies the college classroom where the work of scholars are referenced, taught and distributed. As an educator, Mueller recognized that she could ask, and encourage others to ask, “whose knowledge are we circulating?”

Economics professor Samantha Çakır encountered this question as she prepared to teach the course “Urban Poverty” for the first time this spring.

Çakır plans for her course to be largely discussion based with readings supplementing each topic covered. Without a textbook, she is at liberty to choose exactly, as Mueller might put it, “whose knowledge” she is sharing with her students.

“There’s a great opportunity to add some diversity [of authors],” Çakır said.

With a course such as “Urban Poverty,” authors of different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds can offer particularly insightful research perspectives. They may ask questions that, “if you didn’t grow up in a disadvantaged background, you might not even know to ask those questions and to dig into that kind of research,” Çakır said.

Mueller calls the benefit of including authors of under-represented scholars in her classes “epistemological diversity.”

“It’s not just about different bodies in the room, or even the virtual room of the syllabus,” Mueller said. “It’s also about different thoughts and modes of thinking.”

Mueller found that prioritizing scholarly diversity has encouraged her to look beyond work within peer-reviewed journals and ask the question, “what else constitutes knowledge?”

Looking at alternative sources of information such as film, poetry and social media can, according to Mueller, bring valuable and under-represented perspectives to the table.

“When we rethink what constitutes scholarship and knowledge — I think that’s where really exciting and radical change happens,” Mueller said.

Çakır turned to alternative outlets that specifically promote scholarly work by authors of color and of diverse gender identities. She followed Twitter threads where users promoted scholarly work by authors who were not well known. She also relied on resources from the American Economic Association and National Economic Association that compile works of female-identifying and African American scholars respectively.

“There could be some very important contributions missed if you don’t really dig for them,” Çakır said. “It just takes more effort than simply typing a subject into Google Scholar and taking the first three hits.”

In the field of economics, using work from authors of color or female authors, while initially challenging, is particularly important.

“In economics, you have to be really intentional about it, because the majority of people publishing are white men,” Çakır said.

“The whole discipline in economics in general is trying, on a national and international scale, to elevate new voices. This is just an opportunity to do that.”

Çakır has the opportunity to show students the new identities and perspectives that could come to light with just a little more effort.

“It’s important that students, and other economists, see that there is diversity out there and dig into what these researchers are doing, talk about it, promote it and keep it moving forward,” Çakır said.

When Mueller has included scholars of diverse identities in her course curriculum, her students have identified with the authors in a way they could not before.

“I’ve been really heartened when students have validated my choice in that context,” Mueller said. She recalled students telling her, “‘when you show me the picture of this author, I can see that, I could get a PhD and be a thought leader and a scientist.’”

Both Çakır and Mueller emphasized that there is no lack of female scholars and scholars of color producing quality research and analysis that could be used in their courses. Without mainstream academia paying them adequate attention, their work can go overlooked.

“It’s not that there aren’t voices from different backgrounds,” Çakır said. “They just take two more steps to find.”

“They are there,” Mueller said of diverse authors who could be put in the syllabus. “They just haven’t been recognized yet.”

Mueller and Çakır’s efforts to promote the representation of scholars of diverse identities in their classrooms may play a role in changing how we recognize and represent scholars of political science, economics, and beyond.

“What we learned in classes [and]whose knowledge we choose to honor relates to our lived realities as scholars,” Mueller said. “The power and privilege that I have, as an instructor, is the contents of my syllabus.”