Syllabus diversification: easy mode


The fact that philosophy is a very white-male discipline is no secret. 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?

We were discussing this a lot with my colleagues at various Women in Philosophy or Minorities and Philosophy seminars. It’s quite frustrating: as young academics, what can we actually do to address the issue? I have no influence over who gets hired, who gets promoted, who gets published. So is all this just talk?

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 undergraduate 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!


The truth is, from very early on we teach students to perceive a stereotypical philosopher as a white guy. 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 implicit bias), and finding new stuff is so time consuming! With the best of 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.

“The Diversity Reading List is a fantastic resource for anyone responsible for setting reading lists for Philosophy students. […] I find the list itself easy to use, and there is a great range of texts on the site – you are sure to find something suitable. The information on each entry is concise and useful. What I find particularly handy is that entries allow very easy access to all that’s relevant: they link to the texts themselves, to syllabi that use those texts, to author websites, and even let you export the citations to EndNote.”

Professor Duncan Pritchard

“The Diversity Reading List is great. I was able to browse it easily and find interesting materials in a matter of minutes. […] I am planning to use it when composing my 2016/17 reading lists, and have already encouraged my colleagues to do the same.”

Professor Jesper Kallestrup

Soon we were proud to be supported by the British Philosophical Association, Society for Applied Philosophy, American Society for Aesthetics, the University of Edinburgh and the EIDYN Research Centre. We paid six PhD students and postdocs who, together with the existing team and our volunteers, added nearly 400 new texts to the List, expanding it way beyond ethics. Apart from expanding the List, this allowed us to get these people invested in promoting diversity – and paid.

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 give you some basic teaching notes on top.

Moving on

We are now looking into the possibility of creating Diversity Reading Lists in other disciplines. We created a ‘make your own DRL’ recipe for the forthcoming EqualBITE – A Recipe Book for Gender Equality in Higher Education. If this sounds like something you’d like to do, you should definitely get in touch!

We also always invite people to get involved! You can contribute 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! Together we can really make a difference.

Simon Fokt

Simon Fokt splits his work between research in philosophical aesthetics and learning technology: the design of online courses and education resources. His academic work focuses on classification of art, aesthetic properties, and the borderlines of aesthetics: pornography, comics and computer games. Being committed to promoting equality in the academia, he manages the Diversity Reading List in Philosophy. He is involved in the production and delivery of five MOOCs, including Introduction to Philosophy and Intellectual Humility, as well as the creation of open education resources and promotion of knowledge exchange programmes.

One comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *