Humanities Town Hall Hears Diversity Concerns

Several students said female writers and writers of color are often relegated to secondary status on syllabi.

By Deepti Sailappan, Managing Editor ('19-'20)

Around 25 students voiced suggestions to increase diversity within the Humanities Division at an inaugural undergraduate town hall held on Thursday evening at the Center for Identity + Inclusion.

Discussion at the town hall ranged from diverse hiring practices for teaching staff, to the possibility of additional courses covering foreign literatures and issues of race in America, to the Humanities Core.

The town hall was facilitated by five members of the Humanities Division’s Advisory Committee on Diversity, a team of faculty and staff dedicated to academic diversity initiatives. These were associate professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in English Adrienne Brown, English professor Elaine Hadley, associate professor in modern Korean literature Kyeong-Hee Choi, art history department administrator Alyssa Padilla-Drexler, and assistant professor in English Christopher Taylor.

Several students at the town hall brought up the lack of variety in language and regional studies courses due to a perception of low student interest. One student said the only African language consistently offered is Swahili, but Swahili coursework is housed in the Linguistics department and focuses more on linguistic analysis than on speaking the language.

Taylor and Hadley noted that this issue is twofold. Not only have the University’s African language offerings long been limited, humanities budget constraints within the past five years have not allowed for particularly small classes (including several languages) to be offered. This is due to a University-wide accounting model that allocates funding to divisions based on the number of students they teach, Hadley said.

“Historically, the University of Chicago was a place…where you could do a course with just one student enrolled to learn, say, Assyrian,” Taylor said. He added that more recently, instructors in less popular languages like Malayalam have been cut.

Taylor’s proposed solution is “trying to come up with some pressure on the administration to provide resources” for teaching classes of just one or two students. “That’s how we brand ourselves,” he said. “We study unpopular, nerdy things, so we should probably put our money where our mouth is.”

Students also frequently cited the Humanities Core as an area of possible improvement. Several argued that although efforts have been made to incorporate female writers and writers of color, these authors are often relegated to secondary status within syllabi. “We don’t need Media Aesthetics to be built around [German cultural critic Walter] Benjamin,” one student said.

“There are new cores…but cores can also go away,” Brown responded. “The cores are not written in stone.” She added that she hopes to see “more robust dialogue” with students and faculty about reworking Humanities Core sequences.

The Advisory Committee within the Humanities Division formed in response to the University’s 2016 campus climate survey. The administration’s report after the survey suggested that each of the five academic divisions create a committee tasked with improving diversity in admissions, hiring, curriculum planning, and programming. The Humanities Division was the first to do so, Brown said.

More town hall meetings may take place in the future depending on student interest, Taylor said. Student suggestions will be used to determine the Advisory Committee’s priorities for departmental projects.

Also serving on the Advisory Committee, but not present at the town hall, are associate professor in philosophy Anton Ford, assistant professor in Spanish literature Miguel Martínez, and cinema and media studies professor Jacqueline Stewart.