Commentary  White Man Science

Polling Race and Gender in Political Science Syllabi

Political science is the largest program in the Faculty of Arts, which is the largest faculty at McGill. McGill’s “about” web page claims that the university “is recognized around the world for the excellence of its teaching and research programs.” But what’s in a “world-recognized” education?

In March 2018, undergraduate students at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), a renowned French political science university, published a spreadsheet polling the race and gender composition of their curriculum, which also claims to offer “a world-class” education. They found that only 3.45% of the authors they were assigned were racialized, and 15.45% were women. Contacted by The McGill Daily, the authors of the spreadsheet told us that they “wanted to show who really owned freedom of speech, and to whom it was denied at a systemic level.” Their results show that white male authors and thinkers still dominate their university program — while their university is ranked one of the best in the world in political science.

Race and Gender Composition of Typical Political Science Syllabi at McGill

Polling of race and gender in a sample of 12 McGill political science classes (the amount required for a major) finds similarly damning results. Of the 300 authors polled, 86% are white, and one per cent is Indigenous, with three Indigenous men and a single Indigenous woman. When broken down per class, those numbers show that most syllabi are overwhelmingly (>75%) composed of white male thinkers with two of them including exclusively white male authors.

To engage with decolonial and antiracist thought, students have to go out of their way to find classes, mostly outside the department.

Beyond the four Indigenous authors polled, no other author in the syllabi engages with Turtle Island’s (North America) history of colonialism with a decolonial lens. Similarly, only four authors of the 300 taught in class are Black, and none of the non-Black authors engages with theories around Black liberation or anti-Blackness in Canada. This leaves students with little to no understanding of how Canadian politics have been, and continue to be, shaped by colonialism and racism. To engage with decolonial and antiracist thought, students have to go out of their way to find classes, mostly outside the department.

The political science program aims to teach students “how groups of people govern themselves, how policies are made, and how we can improve our government policies at the local, state, national and international levels” but continues to ignore key ways in which politics work (racism, colonialism, sexism) and key thinkers working on improving government policies surrounding matters of equality. McGill is the alma mater of many key players in Canada’s political landscape, including the current prime minister, as well as many cabinet ministers, MPs, senators, and Supreme Court justices. By excluding Indigenous and Black peoples from having any weight in the education of Canada’s future politicians, McGill hinders decolonial and antiracist thought from being present in governance. This situation contributes to Canada’s persistent ignorance of Indigenous and Black people’s realities, struggles, and thinkers.

Current political science programs perpetuate canons almost exclusively made up of white male authors. These statistics show that what is considered the “best” education for a politician in the West is taught through a canon still heavily limited to white and/or men’s writings. All professors have to consider how the idea of a canon itself has been conceived and what views this has excluded — more specifically Black, Indigenous, people of colour (BIPOC), and women. It is not enough to pepper classes with “diversity,” or to create separate classes to teach decolonial or antiracist thought. Antiracist and decolonial theory should be fully integrated in all syllabi as a core concern so as to make them not marginal and secondary but central. Such change would help in recognizing how important racism and colonialism have been in shaping governments and nations, especially on Turtle Island.

Antiracist and decolonial theory should be fully integrated in all syllabi as a core concern so as to make them not marginal and secondary but central.

Students need to be empowered with policy mechanisms to question the representation of our syllabi. A solution could be drawn from procedures that already exist at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM). There, professors have to strike a deal with their students to decide on the weight, number and due dates of their assignments during the first two weeks of each class. We should have a procedure for students to object to the unjust exclusion of authors from marginalized groups or ideas pertaining to those groups’ struggles. For example, students could flag a class to an equity office like the Social Equity and Diversity Education Office (SEDE); professors would then have to justify the exclusion of certain authors, and amend their syllabi to reflect a more inclusive view of politics. Beyond tedious procedures to urge all professors to integrate antiracist and decolonial theory, professors should proactively make those changes and offer to change readings at the beginning of the semester under such concerns.

We should feel concerned by the poor education given to students around core political dynamics in this country and the world. What McGill and Sciences Po (and countless other universities) mean by “excellence” or “world- class” education remains biased in terms of identities of race and gender. As long as students are exposed to slanted perspectives on politics, politicians will have skewed visions of politics and will hinder the possibility of a just society.

If you wish to go further and teach yourself what is lacking in your degree, here are some academic resources by BIPOC community organizers you can start with:
Black History Month Library

Decolonization Reading List
(Turtle Island)
Postcolonial theory syllabus