Mini-series: Can diversity be taught?

Photo credit: Markus Spiske, Unsplash CC0

In this seventh post for the Mini-series “Curriculum as a site for Social Justice and Anti-Discrimination”, Anindita Jaiswal Jaishiv, a PhD graduate from the Edinburgh Law School and Assistant Law Professor at O.P. Jindal Global University in India, shares insights into pioneering an unconventional course on Strategic Diversity and Law…

I am perhaps asking a question that might nudge the foundation of “education”, its core contents or constituents, and the practise of teaching and learning, much of which remain conventionally deep-seated. I would say that asking the question “can diversity be taught?” seems quite timely too, considering the increasing impetus on “liberal education” in both, STEM and non-STEM subjects. Therefore, regardless of any discipline or country, I am sharing my thoughts and experiences more generally, which is likely to find relevance in education systems across the world.

For me, the question became pertinent when I was asked to choose the courses that I wished to teach at one of the top law schools in India, NALSAR Hyderabad. It gained all more significance a few months back when India revamped its education policy to introduce a new one much in line with the idea of value-based education. Dispirited by the conventional choices that had been repeated through the curriculum for decades, I instead proposed to teach what was beyond the formulaic courses: “Strategic diversity and law”.

The inspiration and idea originated from my doctorate research work on “gender diversity in corporate boardrooms” from a corporate governance and regulatory standpoint. Although specialised in corporate law in terms of both my academic credentials and practice, I could not sever my ties with “diversity” as an area to engage with in the long-run. In fact, while doing my PhD, I was exposed to its various other dimensions and perspectives, and its interactions with other domains and disciplines, which I was keen to explore and develop further. At the same time, I realised that all of it is beyond the scope of any one thesis or piece of work as such. I proposed this course, firstly, to mainstream diversity as a core institutional strategy (not only in terms of figurative or token representation), but as a substantive constituent of the curriculum and pedagogy; and secondly, as an opportunity to explore and learn about “diversity” and its nexus with academics or imparting education.

As you read this, I can foresee and imagine a few eyebrows raised, and it might seem to be quite unwarranted to many others, who might wonder: “why should one worry about ‘diversity’ in the curriculum of a law school, amidst an ocean of law subjects to choose from?” This question speaks of my first hurdle, which is to justify “why diversity?” This was more so, as “diversity” is not otherwise a compulsory or even suggested subject in the list of courses issued by the Bar Council of India. Thus, the challenges I faced at the onset were two-fold: firstly, presenting a persuasive case before the faculty and administrative authorities for why the course would be significant in terms of its learning outcomes; and secondly, considering that the course could only be introduced as a non-compulsory subject (as an elective or seminar course), students too had to be convinced of its relevance, in addition to their other compulsory ones. Thinking back now, it seems rather difficult to state which one of the two above was a greater challenge to conquer!

To achieve that, I chose to start with the gender-based interpretation of diversity, as gender disparities and inequality are historically rooted in India’s strong patriarchal social values and system, across all verticals and strata, be it caste, class or religion. To start with, I made presentations before the institutional heads and the faculty members seeking to assert “why diversity in general (while focusing on gender) must be pursued as an institutional strategy”. The benefits in terms of, aside to equality and democratic justice, overcoming group-think, better decision-making, signalling and salutary effects, and value addition to overall governance were some of key reasons I had highlighted to justify the relevance and significance of such diversity as an institutional strategy. And to do so, I had researched upon actual facts and figures of the university (including that of the administration and the faculty), so as to explain through evidence from that specific context. I had also referred to a recent circular issued by the University Grants Commission requiring universities to appoint “champions” to foster diversity: a reform that had been largely overlooked, and that institutions were hardly cognizant of. This helped me to assert a strong case, which enabled the administrative heads and faculty members to realise and relate with the concern that I was emphasising. I was given a go-ahead, notwithstanding the apprehensions and suspicions raised by many. This marked the beginning of “Strategic Diversity and Law” as the first of its kind course in India – a course that I have pioneered by carving out space amidst the typical law courses.

Then, came the second challenge: implementing and administering the course. For this, I drew from day-to-day instances of gender bias that we face without realising their occurrences. Citing these incidents, including ones of unconscious bias that are routinely experienced, helped me to arouse students’ interests in this regard. Further, considering their varied backgrounds as they came from all corners of the country, I could comprehend the need for diversity encompassing them as law students. Examples being, how diversity, if mainstreamed, can help in more purposive reading, interpreting and drafting of laws (often otherwise carrying formidable connotations of bias and male supremacy); an inclusive professional conduct; while also impacting their behaviour at the campus, cohabitation in hostels, and as a way of life, mind-set and personal development.

What had started with slight interest and curiosity, soon turned into tremendous levels of enthusiasm and activism from the students, as the course evolved.  While drawing the course outline and contents, I was mindful that the pedagogy for a course on “diversity” cannot be (un)diverse, and must not be restricted to traditional means and methods of lecturing within the classroom. Accordingly, I made a conscious decision to leave it open for students to interpret and define the scope of the course, as they perceive what “diversity” means to them. And the outcomes were enthralling, as most of the students chose “out-of-the-box” approaches, one of the virtues that diversity aims for.

For instance, although I had designed the course with a gender-based meaning to diversity, students exceeded that scope to connote diversity in their own ways: caste, region, language, age, culture, dress and appearances, class, education, just to state a few besides gender. Likewise, the contexts within which they studied and applied diversity were expansive. To cite a few examples, some students addressed diversity in the context of law-making and its implementation while some reviewed diversity in terms of law, culture and society as reflected through classic literary novels. Other students examined how media (and advertising) and related laws treat diversity or explored the link of diversity with artificial intelligence and space research. And some worked on way to make the law curriculum and legal education more diverse and inclusive. Topics aside, the methodology used was also diverse, as the evaluations for the course was not confined to only routine research papers. Instead, posters, presentations, photographs or other audio/visual means were allowed and encouraged. This too was unique, considering that the evaluative patterns are otherwise very standardized and rigid in India. It was interesting to note how students, when allowed to think without any pre-determined yardsticks, could innovatively interpret diversity, and relate it to law in the most unconventional ways. Discussions that usually lie within the limits of equality, figurative representation, quotas, and affirmative actions, when one mentions “diversity”, could find new meanings and substance through the course. Some students have pursued their interests in this area after the completion of the course, to study and research further on allied topics.

All in all, it was a mutually benefitting experiential learning experience for me and my students (1). Therefore, to answer the question, “can diversity be taught?”, I would say “well, it definitely can be learnt”.

(1) A few extracts of students’ feedback:

“The diversity course last semester has been one of my favourites through my five years here. I want to work on making education inclusive of women and refugees and being able to learn from you has been amazing. I also want to teach and seeing you has been inspiring.”

“I just wanted to say I’m extremely grateful that I had the chance to take Strategic Diversity and Law last semester, as it was a seminar which introduced me to a method of studying diversity (particularly gender diversity) in a structured and perhaps more academic form. I loved the course and the chance to work on an area I am passionate about…”

“I had a wonderful time in our Strategic Diversity course last semester. Your organized, crisp and clear manner of teaching and communication is an approach which I found helpful.”

photograph of the authorAnindita Jaiswal Jaishiv

Anindita completed her Ph.D. from the School of Law, University of Edinburgh (United Kingdom) in the area of corporate law and governance. Her research addresses critical concerns in corporate governance and its interface with the social and cultural underpinnings, more specifically on gender diversity from a legal and regulatory standpoint. She is a contributor/author in the Scottish Feminist Judgement Project, and has worked actively in the Athena Swan and the Diversity and Inclusion committee at the University of Edinburgh. She has pioneered a course on “strategic diversity and law” as part of the law curriculum, which she has conducted at NALSAR University of Law (Hyderabad) where she worked as an Assistant Professor of Law. While she teaches regular courses of corporate law as an Assistant Professor of Law at her current institution – O.P. Jindal Global University, she is a specialist in diversity and inclusion by practice, and advises on diversity policies and practices through her “docere diversity” program.

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