Blog 51

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image – Adrian A Smith (adriansmith.ca)

Social Inequality and Teaching in the Academy

We live in an unequal world; these inequalities do not stop at the university classroom door.

In this five-part series, I consider some ways unjust inequalities are (re)produced in the classroom. These inequalities affect the pedagogical relationship. Moreover, critically investigating them matters if the university is to be a site for challenging, not reproducing, social inequalities.

Elaine Coburn, Glendon

Part III: The Practical Challenges of Broadening the Scholarly Canon

In parts I and II, I briefly explored the ways that pedagogical content that conscientiously reproduces existing canons and emphasizes high impact research is often problematic from the point of view of those committed to social inequality in the university classroom. Such research tends to re-centre the voices of actors from relatively dominant social locations, while excluding the insights of those speaking from relatively dominated social positions.

The answer to this problem might seem self-evident: broaden the canon. That is, bring the voices of women, racialized scholars from the global South, disabled intellectuals, and more, “from the margins to the centre” of our syllabi and course content, to paraphrase Black feminist bell hooks’ (2000) well-known expression.

Yet the practice is not so easy, for many of us. Not least, broadening or transforming the canon typically means becoming expert in areas that we have not been required to be familiar with. This may be an especially acute problem for those of us who have received what some might consider an enviable education — in my case, the University of Toronto (BA), Stanford University (PhD), then the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, France as a post-doctoral researcher.

During my formative academic years, with few exceptions, I was not required to systematically read or even be familiar with Black feminists, Indigenous intellectuals or disability scholars, among others. I might have read such intellectuals, of course, had I been in a women’s or Indigenous’ or disability studies’ departments at these same institutions. But being in an historically central, if not always unthreatened discipline like sociology – established in Europe and North America by white men– meant this literature was institutionally outside my discipline. Therefore, I was not responsible for knowing it.

I finished my formative academic years totally unprepared to broaden, much less transform the disciplinary canon. I caught up on the literature that I had not previously learned during generous French parental leaves, during which time my position was guaranteed for up to three years of absence. Few scholars, especially in a context of wide-spread academic precarity and increasing pressures towards research productivity, have such opportunities.

Moreover, non-tenured faculty, especially contract faculty, may face threats to their employment if they teach the theories and empirical research of non-canonical scholars. Quite simply, they may be seen as incompetent, as not properly preparing students, especially for their other courses, which are likely to centre “major” (white, male American, Ivy League) intellectuals.

Even among academics with tenure, those from relatively dominated social locations, including women, racialized minorities and Indigenous scholars, are likely to be subject to criticism for broadening the canon. When highlighting voices close to their own social location, in particular, they may be accused of pushing a (selfish) political rather than academic agenda.

Such accusations rest, of course, on the assumption that the normal canon, excluding the majority of the world’s voices, is apolitical.

In short, ignorance of the ideas of the world’s majority is built into the formative academic years of many scholars. Many of us are ill prepared to challenge such ignorance and unlikely to have the time to become expert in new areas. Even if we succeed in acquiring new competency, we face charges of being political or ideological, rather than scholarly. This is especially true for professors who speak from relatively dominated social locations.

The other four parts of this series have been or will be published on the following dates:

  • Part 1 – 23 Jan
  • Part 2 – 30 Jan
  • Part 4 – 27 Feb
  • Part 5 – 13 March

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