By Tareeq O. Jalloh (PhD Student, University of Sheffield)
There is an astounding lack of demographic diversity in philosophy, especially academic philosophy. BAME–Black, Asian and minority ethnic–students make up 8.6% of philosophy postgraduate students in the UK (Pozniak, 2020). In the US, 2.5% of philosophy PhD recipients and 4% of philosophy faculty are black (Schwitzgebel, 2021). Many other disciplines encounter the same lack of diversity. This is especially true for disciplines in the arts and humanities. For instance, whereas BAME students make up 22.3% of UK postgraduates, they only make up 11.5% of humanities postgraduates and 9.2% of arts postgraduates in the UK (Pozniak, 2020).
This lack of diversity in turn tends to centre dominant perspectives in academic disciplines. History, for instance, often centres a very narrow and constrained view of British history where black history is relegated to the margins (Arday, Brachu, & Boliver, 2022). Further, topics in race and ethnicity often seem to be marginalised and taught as add-on or specialist modules as opposed to being a fundamentally integrated part of the curricula (Arday, Brachu, & Boliver, 2022). BAME students engage with curricula that don’t reflect their socialisation, history or lived experience.
There are multiple benefits to improving the demographic and conceptual diversity of disciplines. For instance, improving demographic diversity will lead to students interacting with a variety of different people, and interacting with diverse peers leads to gains in cognitive abilities such as critical thinking (Pascarella & Loes, 2012). We might think improving critical thinking skills would be good for all university students, but this especially rings true for students in disciplines like philosophy, where critical thinking is an integral part of philosophising well. Another reason demographic diversity is necessary is that it exposes people to members of a commonly stereotyped social group who don’t fit stereotypes–countersterotypical exemplars. The exposure to counterstereotypical exemplars helps reduce implicit bias (Holroyd & Saul, 2018).
An improvement in conceptual diversity is important because the lack of an inclusive curriculum that reflects an ever-increasing diverse and multicultural society contradicts the egalitarian ideals embraced by universities. So, improving conceptual diversity might go some way to aligning the values espoused by universities and curricula. Another reason it is important, especially in disciplines like philosophy, is that more and more subjects/ topics of enquiry and more and more positions and views, ideas and perspectives about these subjects are good for these disciplines (Weinberg, 2018).
It’s necessary to think about improving conceptual and demographic diversity together. For instance, the emergence of good philosophy on new subjects is likely to be provided by increasing the demographic diversity of philosophy. As philosophy becomes open to the experiences and worldviews of non-white philosophers, philosophy becomes a better space for developing new questions, methods and research (Weinberg, 2018). Moreover, attention to demographic and conceptual diversity together will improve marginalised groups’ sense of belonging. An increased sense of belonging might go some way to tackling the disparities in grades awarded to BAME students against that of white students. For instance, in 2018 the University of Sheffield had an awarding gap of 8.5%, with white students more likely to achieve a 1st or 2:1 in their final degree than BAME students (Taylor-Scott, 2020). Diversity in the demographic and canons of disciplines will likely lead to higher levels of belonging and engagement among BAME students, which tackles the awarding gap (Arday, Brachu, & Boliver, 2022).
Some of the Ongoing Race-Equality Work in the Sheffield Philosophy Department
With this important context in mind, I want to write about some of the work the philosophy department at Sheffield has been doing to improve race equality in the faculty of arts and humanities. In 2021-2022, I worked alongside Charlotte Flores as a race equality intern in the philosophy department. We saw this internship as foundational to help further race equality and decolonisation in the philosophy department, but also the wider discipline, the faculty and the university more broadly. We had at least three aims for the internship. The first aim was community building: We hoped to contribute to a community and culture in which BAME students feel supported, comfortable, celebrated and able to flourish. The second aim was to take fruitful steps towards decolonisation. We hoped to work closely with staff and students to improve race equality within the department and take fruitful steps towards conceptual and demographic decolonisation. The third aim was to do sustainable work. We not only thought of our contributions as being foundational, but we also did not want the department/ faculty’s efforts towards race equality and decolonisation to end with the internship. We devised our strategy and activities in consultation with the departmental EDI lead and departmental manager and updated it in light of discussions with students throughout the year. We conducted four activities. First, a community building activities night. Second, an information and experience gathering focus group, in conjunction with a community building karaoke night. Third, the first event in a series of lectures on decolonising. Finally, the development of two applications for future activities: decolonisation talks and a BAME peer mentoring network, which are taking place this academic year.
The Impact of Our Work
As I hoped to show earlier, disciplines within the arts and humanities faculty often don’t do well by way of making their BAME students feel like they belong. Our community-building activities were organised and conducted with this in mind. The community-building activities were very well received. Attendees often told us they were really enjoyable and fruitful during the events. We sent out feedback forms after both community-building events, and every response rated the events’ enjoyability and the likelihood that they would attend future events as 100%.
Attendees of the activities night and karaoke night reported that meeting BAME students within the faculty was great and that they probably would not have known of other BAME students’ existence if it was not for the events. For instance, a response we got to the anonymous feedback form we sent out after the activities night claimed, “the main reason for interest/attendance is the social aspect of getting to know more POC in a very white dominated university! I otherwise don’t normally see many of us and it’s a great opportunity to get to know more people.” In response to the question, “what did you find positive about the event [quiz night]” the same respondent asserted “Quiz was amazing! Loved the diversity of the questions. Was a brilliant opportunity to meet other BME students that I normally don’t cross paths with.”
Attendees of the community-building events also mentioned how interacting with other BAME students made them feel less isolated. For instance, an attendee replied, “I think many POC experience isolation and loneliness which is detrimental to wellbeing and mental health. Just having a community and solidarity between POC groups is extremely empowering.” This shows that BAME-exclusive community-building activities help tackle feelings of isolation from being a BAME student at university.
In each response to the forms, it was clear that the students sought a sustained effort to continue community building within the philosophy department. For instance, in response to the question, “how important do you think it is to continue work in BAME community building within the philosophy department,” all respondents answered 100%.
Our work on decolonisation was organised and conducted with the aim of gathering ideas on how decolonisation and race equality is best achieved within the faculty. Here are some ideas we received from our focus group
BAME tutors and mentors: Tutors and mentors were recommended by many attendees. They wanted the tutors/mentors to be approachable and well-versed in minority issues with lived experience, someone whom they can talk to about being a BAME student and who can offer advice and guidance.
Staff training: Training days as a requirement for all staff. This would cover racism at all levels –agential, institutional, structural, systemic, etc. – microaggressions, intersections of oppression and privilege, how to be a good ally and bystander training.
Module reviews: Attendees thought it was important to review modules to ensure sufficient demographic diversity of the authors we are assigned to read and that modules included non-western epistemologies and frameworks. This fits into the broader goal of paying attention to demographic and conceptual forms of decolonisation.
Feedback forms: Review and make better use of feedback forms to measure how well modules and departments are doing by way of decolonisation and race equality.
With the suggestions from the focus group in mind and as part of the sustainability and continuation of our work during the internship, we completed three proposals to fund work during the 2022-2023 academic year (and future years if successful) –a philosophy curriculum review, a series of lectures on decolonisation and a BAME peer mentoring network. We are pleased that the series of lectures on decolonisation and BAME peer mentoring network were approved. The BAME peer mentoring network was highly requested by attendees of the focus group; they thought this would go some way to improve feelings of belonging and levels of engagement among BAME students. The series of decolonisation talks should provide useful insights into how decolonisation is best achieved in the university. We were disappointed that the module review didn’t receive funding, especially because attendees of the focus group sought after it and the philosophy department has already conducted a module review regarding the diversity of authors, so it seemed like there was already a model in place for conducting another review.
Our work has merely scratched the surface with addressing race equality in the faculty of arts and humanities. However, with the community-building activities, we hoped to contribute to a faculty in which BAME students feel like they belong. Further, with work on this year’s BAME mentoring network starting up, we hope that we can form fruitful and encouraging relationships between BAME students in the faculty. We hope that the events that took place last academic year as part for the race equality internship provide a good reference for ongoing race equality work, and that the series of decolonisation talks goes some way to bringing about conversations that will lead to demographic and conceptual decolonisation. It’s great that we will have speakers talking to us about decolonisation and how it is best achieved, but unless the university, faculties and departments are taking these ideas on board, and sufficiently supported and resourced, there is a sense in which having a series of talks is merely performative.
Arday, J., Brachu, C., & Boliver, V. (2022). State of the Art: What Do We Know About Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Participation in UK Higher Education. Social Policy & Society, 12-25.
Holroyd, J., & Saul, J. (2018). Implicit Bias and Reform Efforts in Philosophy. Philosophical Topics, 71-102.
Pascarella, E., & Loes, C. N. (2012). Effects of Diversity Experiences on Critical Thinking Skills: Who Benefits? The Journal of Higher Education, 1-25.
Pozniak, H. (2020, January 27). I’m used to being the only brown person in the room’: why the humanities have a diversity problem. Retrieved from The Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/global/2020/jan/27/im-used-to-being-the-only-brown-person-in-the-room-why-the-humanities-have-a-diversity-problem#:~:text=Black%2C%20Asian%20and%20minority%20ethnic,and%209.2%25%20for%20the%20arts.
Taylor-Scott, A. (2020, November 5). Why we are demanding our university decolonise the curriculum. Retrieved from Labourlist: https://labourlist.org/2020/11/why-we-are-demanding-our-university-decolonise-the-curriculum/#:~:text=As%20laid%20out%20in%20a,degree%20outcome%20than%20white%20students.
Weinberg, J. (2018, October 26). Demographic Diversity is Good for Philosophy . Retrieved from DailyNous: https://dailynous.com/2018/10/26/demographic-diversity-good-philosophy/
Originally appeared on The Philosophers’ Cocoon Read More