The Duck of Minerva

No reading list is perfectly inclusive. Here’s one small step I’ve learned to address that.

17 August 2018

This is a guest post from Zoe Marks. Zoe Marks is currently Director of the Global Development Academy at the University of Edinburgh and Program Director of the MSc in African Studies; in September 2018, she will join the faculty at Harvard Kennedy School. Her research focuses on peace and conflict, gender, and inequality and has been published in various outlets, including African Affairs and Civil Wars.

As Steve Saideman wrote here last week, August is a time of dashed summer dreams, finding consolation in looming stability, and scrambling to get syllabi in order for the new academic year. Whether you are a new or seasoned professor, August is rarely a time to “perfect your class”. However, in the name of progress-not-perfection, I also try to remember that August is no time to forsake rigor and inclusivity in course design. Good intentions aren’t enough to address race, class, and gender biases in research and teaching.

An impressive — and sobering — array of academic research has emphasized the need to change the status quo in order to equitably publish, cite, recognize and reward women and non-white academics, colleagues in the Global South, and researchers from other marginalized and underrepresented groups. If you are one of the growing numbers of faculty trying to tackle this, you have probably come to suspect that expanding your reading list is not a magic bullet. (Paulo Freire and bell hooks warned us.) As we start a new academic year (in the Northern hemisphere) and incorporate new authors and topics into our courses, one small change can be a shot-in-the-arm for more rigorous and inclusive teaching: simply require students to cite underrepresented scholars in their written work.

Last year, prompted by research on citation gaps, crowd-sourced initiatives to improve academic equity (such as #womenalsoknowstuff, #citeblackwomen, and #StandingRockSyllabus), and most importantly from listening to my students’ and colleagues’ experiences of exclusion and bias, I clarified my expectant euphemisms to “go beyond the reading list” with straightforward written directions:

  • “Be sure to cite African academics.” (African Studies)
  • “Cite African authors and/including women.” (Conflict and Peace in Africa)

In short, I encouraged my students to overcome and close the citation gap above and beyond the readings I assign. Although the instructions are slightly different, because August: it worked better than anticipated. In class I briefly explained different strategies for accessing a wide range of sources, and why it’s useful to be critically engaged when navigating biased or unequal knowledge economies. I encouraged them to use mixed sources (academic articles and books, and reports by NGOs, governments, and think tanks) broadening the scope of credible authorship. Doing so seems to have made their learning more relevant and inclusive, and it turned up a wealth of exciting new resources for me to share with the next year’s class.

If you’re not yet sold by the simplicity of an inclusive citation requirement, here is a quick summary of why I think it’s the single most efficient and effective way to make research-oriented classrooms better represent the breadth and depth of topical knowledge available:

  1. It signals value for and equality of underrepresented scholars. When we tell our students they have to do something, it comes with the implicit promise, “this is related to your learning and will help you become a better-informed, more skillful thinker on our subject.” As professors, we not only share information – freely available in libraries and on the internet – we also lend credibility, inspiration, and discernment to students’ search for good knowledge; they look to us regarding which sources to trust and why. As a result, we have a responsibility to demonstrate inclusivity and equality regardless of race, gender, social position, or geopolitical location.
  2. It disrupts cycles of bias. A colonized curriculum is one that perpetuates closed academic networks dominated by mostly white mostly male scholars based in elite American and European institutions, unequally attributing expertise and shrinking our intellectual ecosystem. Students deserve to be trained in how to find a robust range of credible information on their subject – evaluating empirical evidence and theoretic rigor to determine quality, rather than relying on prestige-based signals. I’ve learned that the process of working to identify and cite underrepresented academic voices gives students an authentic, self-directed experience encountering the effects of a colonized curriculum. Discovering for themselves how some knowledge is privileged while other knowledge has been subjugated can be an extraordinarily revealing process.
  3. It rewards ambitious learning. In English-language academic repositories, it is harder to find research by women, people of color, and non-Western academics because discriminatory practices and exclusionary systems have been effective historically. Inclusive citation expectations enable us to reward students willing to work to find readings from underrepresented scholars. More importantly, it protects and respects underrepresented students’ efforts to explore and draw on work by scholars with whom they may have important experiences in common.
  4. It improves rigor and learning content. Broadening the range of scholarly sources helps students compare and contrast different worldviews, ideas, and sources of knowledge. Well-curated reading lists provide a springboard for students to more fully understand how race, class, gender, and more shape political, economic, and cultural theory and empirical reality.
  5. It expands (exponentially) future research and teaching resources. We have opportunities to lead by example and make sure our syllabi don’t match the walls of the ivory tower. But, after putting our (mid-August) energies in that direction, the effect is multiplied in myriad glorious ways if we unleash our talented students to also pursue inclusivity in their writing assignments. My reading lists and syllabi are always a work in progress; I’m grateful to have had students point me toward new sources that expand and deepen my knowledge and improve my courses for the next year’s class (and the next and the next…).

More broadly, my hope for students is that they are able to go out into the world and both source and sort information that is useful for their intellectual lives. By signaling that non-White voices matter, women’s voices matter, voices from the Global South matter, and more – and that none of these categories are mutually exclusive – my students have also become more attuned to and critically curious about the sources they read, the silences they find, and the assumptions and information upon which authors draw.

Adopting an inclusive citation requirement for written assignments may be a simple step, but it accomplishes a great deal for students, classroom conversation, and future teaching and learning. It has the potential to equip multiple generations of scholars, policymakers, artists and intellectuals with foundational skills for rigorous, inclusive research. Most importantly, you can do it today, while you (we, I) still work toward that elusive perfect syllabus.