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Letter to the editor

by The Concordian November 7, 2017 6 comments

I write to voice my support for the Oct. 3 editorial, “Curriculums and Classes: Where Diversity Falls Short at Concordia.” I think it is crucial that students forthrightly address the insufficient diversity of faculty and curricula, challenging faculty and administration to address this problem as directly as possible.

In the Department of English, where I teach, there are presently 28 tenured or tenure-track faculty. Only two of these are people of colour—a figure wildly disproportionate to the diversity of Concordia students. Last year our department hired an Indigenous scholar in the field of Indigenous literature, and this is an important step forward. Yet in the department’s two previous job searches, none of the finalists were people of colour. Since one of those searches was in the field of Global Anglophone Literature (i.e. postcolonial literature), this is particularly troubling.

Unfortunately, efforts to advocate for diversification of faculty and curricula are too often met with anxiety and defensiveness. Last year an English department graduate student proposal for a research assistant position to help diversify syllabi was rejected by faculty. When a hiring committee made diversification of the department a key consideration in a search last year, they were rebuked by a higher committee for prioritizing diversity too much—hardly plausible given the composition of our faculty mentioned above. The English department’s proposal for a cluster hire in Black Studies to support the development of an interdisciplinary minor in that field was not selected among cluster hiring initiatives. It is always possible to gesture toward one recent hire or another in order to indicate progress on these issues, but it is also necessary to point out instances in which such progress has been impeded—especially given the structural reality of neglect on this front over recent decades. Sometimes the same diversity initiatives that are met with initial suspicion and resistance, then blocked at the level of implementation, are lauded as signs of progress because they have been proposed. That isn’t good enough.

The Collective Agreement of the Concordia University Faculty Association states that “The Parties agree that Concordia University would better advance the essential functions of the University, namely the pursuit, creation and dissemination of knowledge through teaching and research, if the diverse composition of Canadian society were better reflected in the bargaining unit. Therefore the Parties agree to encourage an increase in the proportion of members of under-represented designated groups as defined in the relevant legislation.” My view is that faculty and administration at Concordia need to do a better job of prioritizing this stipulation. It is heartening to see students insist on this point.

Nathan Brown
Associate Professor of English
Canada Research Chair in Poetics
Concordia University

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  • Alexander Weihmayer Hamel

    Why do some people insist on playing identity politics. Society should work as a meritocracy. The finalists weren’t people of color? Who cares. It blows my mind how you think giving someone an advantage based on their ethnicity is empowering to anybody. It’s actually degrading. Without sugar coating it, you could boil it down to: “we feel sorry for you, you’ll never succeed without our help, here’s a handout to make it ok”. These are smart independent adults, they can get a job without you babying them. The reason these practices are met with opposition is because this isn’t “diversity” for the sake of intellectual progress, it’s simply “diversity” for the sake of “diversity” and it will never be enough.

    • Nathan Brown

      Dear Alexander,

      I’m happy to reply to your comment. The problem is that the proportion of people of colour among faculty in an academic department that I cite (2-26) is not reflective of a meritocracy. Such a ratio is not representative of the relative merits of applicants for faculty positions (since there are many strong applicants who identify as people of colour), but rather of barriers that people of colour have faced in attaining those positions — which is why the composition of faculty at Concordia and at many universities is so disproportionate to the diversity of their students. This is also why the faculty’s collective agreement states that “the Parties agree to encourage an increase in the proportion of members of under-represented designated groups as defined in the relevant legislation.” We need to do a better at that.

      • Alexander Weihmayer Hamel

        So if the school does not recruit solely based on merit then you’re saying that your hiring process is somehow racist. Why is the recruitment process not addressed directly instead of seemingly giving and advantage based on ethnicity. I say this because the tone of the article is focused on just that and it gives me strong doubts all these efforts have the intent to be truly meritocratic, especially since diversity hirings and affirmative action are a known thing.

        “[The ethnic makeup of faculty is] wildly disproportionate to the diversity of Concordia students”. Implying that the ethnic make up of the faculty should be based the makeup of the students, not meritocracy.

        “[It’d be better] if the diverse composition of Canadian society were better reflected”. Same point as the previous one.

        “Last year our department hired an Indigenous scholar in the field of Indigenous literature, and this is an important step forward”. Implying that he is best suited for the material because of his ethnicity.

        “Since [no colored people were finalists] in the field of Global Anglophone Literature (i.e. postcolonial literature), this is particularly troubling”. Same point as the previous one. It is suspicious to make statements like these without context. Misleading by excluding information is so easy. I’d only consider this valid if I knew the ratio. From the faculty ratio, I’m assuming there were more non colored applicants and therefore they are statistically more likely to become finalists.

        Based on how you present your stance in the article, I’m assuming the cluster hire for black studies would be entirely composed of black people too.

        There is an issue, but I disagree that it can be solved by implementing preferential rules and trying to replicate the same demographics everywhere.

        • Nathan Brown

          Dear Alexander,

          Just one more reply to your comments. You agree that “there is an issue.” So, the question is how to address it, since it will not simply address itself. Efforts to address the issue are often construed, defensively, as accusations of racism, but that is not what they amount to. One can acknowledge that, historically and persistently, people of colour have faced barriers to proportional appointment as university faculty (among many other fields) — a fact which is quite evident in the composition of our faculty. The factors at play in this problem are complex, and they rarely stem from open racism on the part of particular people. But if one acknowledges that there *is* a problem with the insufficient diversity of faculty, one needs to redress the problem.

          My approach is to listen to students of colour at the university and to support their proposals and demands. That is why I wrote the letter above. I am very far from thinking that postcolonial literature should only be taught by people of colour, or that black writers should only be taught be black scholars. Last year I taught a course called “Blackness, Freedom, Free Verse.” As a student, I took excellent classes on postcolonial literature and Black studies from white professors. I do not take an essentialist position on this question. However — if one considers the history of colonialism and decolonization, one should be able to acknowledge that there is indeed a problem with postcolonial literature being taught exclusively or primarily by white scholars. If one considers the history of slavery, one should be able to acknowledge that there is indeed a problem with literature by Black north american writers being taught exclusively or primarily by white scholars. To ignore that this is a problem is to think at a very abstract level — it ignores how people of colour feel when they are taking these courses; it ignores serious questions about the historical conditions under which knowledge and history are transmitted. It is certainly untenable to initiate a Black Studies program with insufficient representation of Black scholars among faculty. Black students among those who would benefit from such a minor would likely insist on this point, and rightly so.

          These are issues one can address without taking essentialist positions. Of course, people have different opinions about how to do so. In my view, the key is to listen to students who are working actively on these problems, and to support their goals and proposals. That is a very basic principle.

          All best,
          Nathan

        • Alexander Igbo

          You just don’t get it. Nathan Brown is making the case for an uninpeeded meritocracy in hiring. Systemic racism creates barriers that Brown would like to see dismantled. The same barriers that you anxiously want to preserve and defend under the pretense of finding flaws in reasoning and logic with Brown’s argument. You are part of the problem as instead of attacking the problem (racism) you use your time and energy attacking someone who wants to help move society forward. Where and how you spend your energy reveals your own priorities and agenda.

          • Alexander Weihmayer Hamel

            I’m not sure how you can make those claims. Thinking that my stance is somehow “racist” does not mean that affirmative action is immune to criticism. If you associate disagreement to motives and agendas, you are reasoning like an extremist. You might think this is a good solution, but I reject all notions that WHAT you are should be a factor over WHO you are.

            Brown made a comment before this, but deleted it for some reason. In it, he said that he needed black teachers to teach black studies otherwise the program could not succeed. How is that meritocracy at all. If the program had any sort of pragmatic value, it would not need such initiatives.

            Companies and government institutions are VERY open to demands of diversity and inclusion so I find it really hard to make a case for systematic oppression of any sort. Trying to push diversity quotas to me is a lazy solution with an unconvincing defense of putting blame on “racism/sexism/bigotry”. In a lot of cases it looks like it’s mainly for PR. You can disagree with me, but as long as I don’t see anybody going to the root of the problem (and I don’t mean colonialism) before applying a solution and people like you casually equating criticism with racism (which makes me even doubtful, thanks), I won’t be convinced.