Resource: Syllabus diversification made easy

Author: Dr Simon Fokt, Learning Technologist and curator of the Diversity Reading List, University of Edinburgh

Before you start reading, here’s a fun task for you. Go to Google Images and type in ‘philosopher’. In the comments below write the number of images you scrolled through before you counted 10 that depict a person who is not white or male.


You probably won’t be surprised by the result, and while a Google search might not be indicative of the current state of the discipline, it is pretty indicative of what a stereotypical cultural image of a philosopher is. The state of the discipline is no better, by the way – philosophy remains dominated by white men. The statistics are rather embarrassing and most of us probably agree that we should do something to ensure more fairness and equal opportunity. But what?

This issue is often discussed, but we need more – we need action. I was fraught by this four years ago while working in my first post at the University of Leeds, because for a young academic action isn’t easy. I have no influence over who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets published. So is all this just talk?

Graph showing women and academic progression in the UK (2008-11). Ian James Kidd, Gender Action in Philosophy.

Well, no. I do have influence over one thing: I decide what I teach. I write the syllabus for my class and can make sure that at least in my syllabus there is some equality. This might not seem like much, but is in fact is extremely important. Just look at the graph: the nearly even gender distribution at UG level quickly gives way to increasing inequality at each consecutive step, ending with as little as 20% of professors being female (BPA 2011, Norlock 2011). Clearly something is happening on the way there!

Truth is, from very early on we teach students to perceive a stereotypical philosopher as a white guy. We validate what they see in the Google search results. After all, most of their lecturers are white males, as are the names they see on the syllabus (Paxton et al. 2012Dougherty et al. 2015Thompson et al. 2016). If students who are not white or not male learn early that philosophy isn’t really for the likes of them, it’s no wonder that they don’t stick around. And given that they are likely to experience stereotype threat and fall victim of implicit bias, trying to stick around might not be easy or attractive (Saul, 2013).

To action!

Now, many of my colleagues are very aware of the problem and think about diversifying their syllabi. But this isn’t easy – it’s harder to think about or find non-white-male authors (hello from availability bias), and finding new stuff is so time consuming! With best intentions, people end up running out of time and falling back on the old tested classics who, by the way, are all white men.

OK then, I thought, let’s make this big! The truth is, there are usually a few texts beyond the classics which could support a class equally well, some of them written by authors from under-represented groups. And if such texts are less well known, harder to find, and require more work to incorporate, then let’s remove those obstacles! What if there was a place where you could go, search for the topic of your class and find a ready list of such texts, each of them with some basic notes which could help you choose and prepare? And thus the Diversity Reading List was born.

It took a few months, help from four colleagues, and the support of the School of PRHS at the University of Leeds, but it happened. By June 2015 a proof-of-concept List of 100 entries in ethics was ready. In the first three days of its existence the site saw close to 6000 visitors, and gathered a fair bit of positive feedback.

Soon we were proud to be supported by the British Philosophical Association, Society for Applied Philosophy, American Society for Aesthetics, the Universities of Edinburgh and Sheffield, the EIDYN Research Centre, and the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities. We employ a part time coordinator, and we paid seven PhD students and postdocs who, together with the existing team and our volunteers, added nearly 700 new texts to the List, expanding it way beyond ethics. Apart from growing the List, this allowed us to get these people invested in promoting diversity – and paid.

We are even looking into the possibility of creating Diversity Reading Lists in other disciplines! While collaborations that might lead to this develop, we published a ‘make your own DRL’ recipe in EqualBITE – A Recipe Book for Gender Equality in Higher Education.

So what do we do?

The point of the DRL is to make finding relevant texts easy. All entries offer the following information:

  • Text bibliographic details
  • Abstract, publisher’s note, or a content synopsis
  • A short comment with teaching notes and suggestions
  • An indication of how hard to read a text is and whether it is more appropriate at introductory or further levels
  • Links to the paid and open access versions of the text, and to any published syllabi that use it
  • Link to the author’s web profile

You can search the list for specific texts, authors or keywords, or browse by topic in an easily navigable structure of categories. All texts included have been recommended by philosophers and assessed by our team who select for clarity and relevance to teaching. So now you don’t have to laboriously search the net for authors from under-represented backgrounds and read all their texts to check if you could use them. We’ve done the work for you – and gave you some basic teaching notes on top.

Moving on

We have been branching out recently, developing connections with other diversity-oriented projects. We put on joint events with Minorities and Philosophy, collaborate with Women in Philosophy groups, present at conferences. We are quite excited about the prospect of collaborating with OPEN Scotland now, too!

There are also big changes afoot, as we are looking towards turning the DRL into a community-run project. We hope that the site has become popular enough to attract people who will want to add new and edit existing entries on their own. We are planning to roll out this feature later this year.

Before that happens, there are many other ways for you to get involved! You can suggest new titles to the list on our Contribute page, or join our volunteer editor team. You can also promote us at your event – you can download our posters and fliers here (or we can send you some), and you should definitely follow us on twitter or Facebook and check out our Newsletters. Together we can really make a difference.

One thought on “Resource: Syllabus diversification made easy

  1. 111 (I think).

    That includes 2 in the first 50, and the first woman being 52nd.

    That is counting images with multiple persons depicted of which most were white men, and ones depicting non-philosophers (e.g. Kanye West in a BBC article ‘A philosopher rates Kanye West’s tweets’. This philosopher was Dr Lauren Ware, so it counts)


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