Many of us seek higher education in the hopes of broadening our grasp of the topics and ideas we’ve found engaging as we’ve grown up. Though it’s true that universities can give access to resources, communities, and courses that allow for this kind of growth, they’re still one of the many institutions that are guilty of reinforcing a problematic status quo. Calls for addressing systemic issues of racism, classism, sexism, and the myriad of other harmful practices that continue to impact student life on campus are louder and more widespread than ever.
Students have been able to mobilize and share their experiences, directly call out injustices, and effect change in ways they never could in the past — through social media and the internet as a whole, institutions of higher learning are able to be held accountable for many things that would be otherwise swept under the rug. For instance, in 2019 a Black student was skateboarding on campus at the University of Ottawa, and was subsequently stopped and handcuffed for no apparent reason. The only way that situation was rectified was through the collective engagement of students who opposed such a violation. Koulmiye Boyce, the student in question, stated:
“After that incident, students organized. We released an open letter asking for very clear things. We asked for a policy review, we asked for transparency, accountability, information and representation.”
While all this can be empowering, it’s still difficult to understand how you as an individual can make changes that would benefit your own academic landscape. Universities are large and intimidating entities, and especially at the start of your academic career, it’s easy to feel like just one small fish in the massive sea of other students looking to scrape by.
The Issue of Diversity Implementation
A simple but disappointing truth is that “diversity” is often a blanket term used to gesture to a vague idea of inclusion wherever it is employed — quite often, the mere mention of diversity seems to appease the masses even if no actual set plan or measures are being taken. That is to say, talk of diversity with little follow through is an easy comfort to the conscience of people in positions of power, and such half-hearted gestures allow people to continue supporting these institutions guilt free. It allows for the illusion of acknowledgment to be pushed into the public awareness, distracting from the core issue at play. This is where tokenism flourishes, especially in student life.
When I was taking an African literature course in my third year, my professor (who was white — I have never taken a course in my field taught by another Black professor) pointed out in the first lesson the issue with the course existing as a whole. African literature is literature — it exists among the canon and has equal importance and impact on the history of writing in general. The need to make the course (and other such courses; Latin literature, Indigenous literature…) separate from our required English courses is an example of the lack of true acceptance in academic spaces, and the perpetual exclusion of people of colour. To condense such a broad concept into a single elective is a disservice to the work itself.
This isn’t to say advanced courses that focus on a specific region are inherently wrong, it’s great and necessary to take a deeper dive into overlooked aspects of your area of study. But when there is an intense lack of inclusion in “regular” literature classes, and other forms of writing are shoved into elective courses that students take at their own will (rather than the required study of mostly white, mostly male authors), there is an issue.
Though this acknowledgment from my professor was nice, it was also frustrating. I thought it must mean that many other faculty members must be aware of the issue. So what could be done?
Self Advocating at a Community Level
One thing that can help in taking a step forward in this issue is looking for other students who may share your sentiments. There is a long list of different student-run initiatives on campuses that advocate for marginalized identities; resources such as Concordia’s Centre for Gender Advocacy and Student Union are just a couple examples. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a group fighting for diversity requirements in courses, but if you can find like-minded individuals, you can breach the subject and garner support.
It can be a huge relief just to have your sentiments echoed by your peers, and this also speaks to the power of solidarity strength in numbers. For example, petitions signed by a sizable number of people, or formal complaints written and co-signed by a group, can be shared at a quicker rate to a larger audience than they would if backed by a single person. Utilizing the power of connection through various forms of social media for these proposals can also draw more attention to the cause.
Another impactful move is to familiarize yourself with the people in your class, and your professors. Though it may seem as though there is a great distance between you as a student and your instructor, you’re going to be sharing a classroom and a considerable amount of hours with this person all semester. If you find the syllabus to be exclusionary, attending office hours with others to speak on the issue could prove helpful. While this may not necessarily change the system of the university as a whole, expressing concern over the course materials shows an active interest and highlights the issue. It’s surprising how many professors are blind to glaringly obvious issues within their classrooms. Having this connection with a professor, when successful, may be useful in bringing this concern to a higher level, although this process can be daunting, slow, and deeply frustrating. Professors can help guide you to who you need to speak with on an administrative level, and if the concern is shared, can act as allies to the cause.
In the midst of many global movements and uprisings, more universities have touched on the idea of diversity requirements through coursework. UCLA professor Gene Block stated: “When faculty are socially conscious and create safe spaces for people to share their experiences, more students feel a sense of belonging.”
On a general level, diversity in the classroom is something that does not need to be as contentious and elusive as it currently is. Diversity is something that should be embedded into the fabric of student life in a way that allows for students to access the full potential and scope of their learning material, offering perspectives that reflect the world around us.
Like all lasting, systemic change, these things take time and effort and can be frustratingly slow. While having to fight and waiting for change is quite discouraging, it’s important to remember that it is not only possible, but that you are almost never alone in what you believe in. In moments of exhaustion, look to your community for support. Take advantage of the resources you have at hand, and continue to do your own research as you take charge of your academic autonomy.
CBC Radio. “Students call for systemic change in wake of N-word controversy at University of Ottawa.” October 23, 2020, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/thecurrent/the-current-for-oct-23-2020-1.5772694/students-call-for-systemic-change-in-wake-of-n-word-controversy-at-university-of-ottawa-1.5774034
Centre for Gender Advocacy. https://genderadvocacy.org/
Concordia Student Union. https://www.csu.qc.ca/
DeRuy, Emily. “The Complicated Process of Adding Diversity to the College Syllabus.” July 29, 2016, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2016/07/the-complicated-process-of-adding-diversity-to-the-college-syllabus/493643/