Commentary | Hyde Park: Taking diversity to class

There is an all-too-familiar litany of complaints that follow the question, “So, how do you like McGill?” posed so frequently by probing family members: the classes are too big, the red tape is horrendous, and WebCT is evil. But many of us have also struggled with a frustrating, more elusive question: why is it so rare to find learning environments at McGill that actively seek to support students in challenging systems of oppression? Fostering an anti-oppressive atmosphere everywhere on campus, especially in classrooms, is a particularly challenging pursuit.

Many of us can recall particularly problematic lectures: one sociology professor who used the word “purebred” to describe an ethnically homogenous people, another professor who elicited soft laughter when she joked that some people can’t be categorized as male or female. Should the onus be on individual students to call out these kinds of statements – and what happens when other students air similarly ignorant opinions?

Universities should be spaces for dialogue, yet sometimes professors fail to adequately facilitate debates, sometimes leading to classroom discussions dominated by oppressive ideas. That is not to advocate censorship: after all, systems of oppression – racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, sizeism, classism, and others – are informed by structures, not individuals.

Course materials can also perpetuate these ideas. An introduction to a sociology textbook cited race as a slowly fading biological category; another text claimed that people invent the memories of sexual assault they recall while in therapy in order to play the victim card. And then there’s the issue of what courses fail to address entirely, such as studying the experiences of transwomen or women of colour in women’s studies courses.

Few international development classes provide students with perspectives of people living in the Majority World, or designate time to analyze why IDS students – overwhelmingly white, middle class women – are in a position to study the so-called developing world. A quick glance through major requirements reveals similar problems; for example, you can graduate with a degree in Canadian Studies without taking a single course on First Nations issues.

Student groups are attempting to tackle these issues: the Caribbean Students Society is currently campaigning to address the absence of courses around the Caribbean in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program. Additionally, the McGill Anti-Racist Coalition (MARC) is launching a card-writing campaign to allow students to anonymously challenge the way professors run their classes. Hopefully, these moves will initiate discussion about pedagogical change, so that McGill’s learning environments will reflect the diverse needs of its student body. You can also find blank cards, and drop off filled ones, at the MARC office (Shatner 428). MARC will then deliver them to the mailboxes of professors whose courses come up most frequently.