Students push for greater representation and diversity in the English department
Concordia held an event on how to better support diversity among staff and faculty Monday afternoon. The “Racialization, Indigeneity, Racism and the University” event took place in the LB building. The lecture was introduced by Graduate Program Director Danielle Bobker, who presented the speakers—Queen’s University professor Audrey Kobayashi and York University professor Enakshi Dua.
The event was sponsored by the Subcommittee on Representation and Visibility in the Academy, the English department, the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Simone de Beauvoir Institute. Organizer and English Literature MA student Mona’a Malik said she and Bobker knew there were concerns amongst English students concerning the lack of representation of people of colour and LGBTQ+ communities in faculty and curriculum, especially in terms of authors and theorists on syllabi, said Malik.
Creative Representative for the Student Association for Graduate Students in English and Creative Writing Graduate student Liam LaChance said it’s vital for the community to acknowledge the limitations inherent to an all-white faculty. “We should accept our limits in speaking on behalf of people whose experiences we will never fully share,” said LaChance. “Having more voices in a conversation seems like a higher quality of discussion and education.”
Kobayashi said one of the reasons everyday racism occurs is due to the persistent white culture. Kobayashi said, “overall, what we see in virtually every campus across Canada is … entrenchment of [white] culture.” She said many administrations ignore this white culture by implementing some programs with diversity, but which ultimately do not lead to enough change.
Presently, many students at Concordia are not only feeling the effect of racism from white culture, but are noticing the great lack of diversity within their education and at the university. “I’ve had my own issues with the art history department,” said Shaun Contant, an art history student. “Mostly the fact that it tends to be a very Euro-centric curriculum.” He said that being a person of colour in a Euro-centric classroom causes him to feel that “your art and your culture is not as important.”
He and his classmates from his elective African-American literature found the lack of diversity within the faculty has affected professors’ analysis of topics like racism.
“As the black students we had to point out things that she wasn’t bringing up in the class,” said Contant.
Melissa Murphy, an English Literature student and Contant’s classmate, said the teacher did not analyze the literature in the way she felt a black professor would.
“There wasn’t enough cultural context … [The professor] was kind of giving us a very formal understanding [of African-American literature].”
Murphy said it’s hard for teachers to relate to issues associated to racism when their perspective is outside the realm of those experiencing racism first-hand.
The students collectively said it’s not the professor’s fault that she didn’t bring a personal understanding to the analysis as a white female, however they feel this can be aided by a greater minority representation within the staff.
“I want to be able to see myself in the things I read, I want to be able to go and learn about my history,” said Shannon Gittens, an English literature student that participated in the African-American literature class. “The problem is when you only give one avenue of education, or education from one perspective all the time, then it kind of leaves a certain glare on the other side of the story.”
The Concordian sat down with the head of the English department, professor Andre Furlani. He said that during the hiring process the department aims to be blind in terms of race and sexual orientation.
“The department is currently in negotiations to secure a second full-time faculty member who belongs to a visible minority,” said Furlani. “In terms of larger issues of diversity, the department’s cadre of 27 full-time members includes 10 women and five gay/lesbian members.”
Furlani said the last seven hires were white males, however he said there was no bias within these hires. “One of the hires was Alan Shepard,” said Furlani, adding that Shepard will begin teaching in the Fall 2016 term. Furlani said that while this does not fill their racial minority category, he is proud the English department has LGBTQ+ representation.
In terms of greater diversity within the classes offered by the English department, Furlani said you’re not going to see the diversity of a course in the title or the description online, however students should look at the details of each syllabus to recognize the different ethnic authors and literary works studied.
“We’re black students, we’re advocating for our history, we want our stories told, we want our representation and that’s something that we should be able to demand freely without it feeling offensive or aggressive or out of place,” said Shannon.