On curricular diversity and a diversity curriculum.

Note: I prefer to write on my own platform so that I have complete ownership and control over my own words: how they are presented and how they age. I will, however, not make any substantial edits without tagging them.

On June 21st, 2020, a petition to incorporate DIAP courses in the WRIT requirement at Brown began circulating. In essence, this petition called on Brown University to include courses with Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan (DIAP) designation - courses generally focused on issues surrounding gender, race, and inclusion - to be required alongside WRIT (writing) courses. In light of this petition, I want to explore some of the benefits and drawbacks of such an approach to diversity education, and put forth my own mechanism to achieve the same goals, independent of a DIAP requirement.

Context

First, some context. It’s important to discuss two bits of framing that this piece wouldn’t make sense without: the current Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests and Brown’s Open Curriculum. If you know anything about the current news and/or attend Brown University, please feel free to skip the following two paragraphs.

At the time of writing (and at the time the petition was started), the US is facing two simultaneous national crises: the COVID-19 pandemic and the BLM movement, the former of which isn’t very relevant, but worth mentioning (stay inside folks). Sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and fuelled by the years of systemic racism, the protests are calling for police reform, as well as broad societal reform. That broad societal change, some say, must be supported in part by education.

Brown University, as an educational institution, is therefore held responsible for pioneering that social change. An important element of the Brown education is the Open Curriculum, an academic framework that essentially allows students to study what they want with very few restrictions and prescriptions. The only requirements for graduation are the completion of at least one concentration’s requirements, two WRIT-designated courses, and 8 semesters of full-time enrollment. The Open Curriculum is often taken as more than a policy, however: it is an attitude towards learning that is echoed in many other parts of the university, and has become an integral part of this college’s identity.

The Proposal

The proposal put forth by the petition is quite simple: require that all students, in addition to taking two WRIT courses, take at least one DIAP course as well. It is implied that these requirements could be fulfilled by the same course, given it is both DIAP- and WRIT-designated. Most of the justification of this policy change is self-evident: it aligns with the school’s goal of promoting diversity and inclusion, socio-political knowledge is essential to productive citizenship, etc. I leave it to the petition to justify itself - I want to discuss some potential drawbacks.

One of the largest points of contention brought up surrounds preserving the essence of the Open Curriculum. Essentially, if diversity is considered essential knowledge, why not also a basic understanding of calculus? Or perhaps of human physiology? The Open Curriculum differentiates Brown from other schools in that it provides for (nearly) absolute academic freedom. I personally don’t believe in this slippery slope, but understandably, there is concern around forfeiting some of that freedom.

A particular concern that I have surrounding requiring the DIAP requirement is the possibility for the disinclined to blow off their one DIAP course. Almost certainly, we will see people looking to find the “easy DIAP courses” to get their requirements out of the way, which is orthogonal to the goals of both this initiative and of the Open Curriculum at large. We see this pretty clearly already in the Dear Blueno posts by incoming freshmen asking for easy WRIT courses.

Moreover, if we wish to put DIAP-designation on a similar plane to WRIT-designation, we should look over the inherent differences between WRIT and DIAP course offerings, particularly in STEM fields. While a student concentrating in the humanities might happen to take their WRIT and DIAP courses as requirements, this will almost never happen for a STEM student. Moreover, the areas of interest for a STEM student rarely overlap with the areas that WRIT and DIAP courses cover, making the WRIT or DIAP requirement more “out of the way”, so to speak.

To ameliorate this on the WRIT side, there are WRIT designated courses in a wide array of STEM departments, including engineering, computer science, biology, and neurology. These courses tackle important issues in their fields from a qualitative viewpoint, synthesizing the spheres of writing and science in a very pure display of Open Curriculum-ness. However, with the exception of one biology course, none of these departments offered DIAP-designated courses (in Spring 2020). That is not to say that diversity and inclusion are void in these fields: racist data in CS, disability-oriented design in engineering, unethical medical practices in history, and neurological bases for xenophobia are all incredibly riveting and worthwhile fields of discussion. However, if we are to expect a DIAP requirement, then we must consider creating as many DIAP courses as we have WRIT courses, and in as many departments and disciplines as possible.

Justification

The effects of creating these DIAP courses targeted at certain departments is three-fold. Firstly, students in-concentration are likely to be more interested in DIAP courses related to their field, marking the second drawback I mentioned above (apathy) null. Secondly, the things they learn in relevant DIAP courses will translate directly to their work, both at the university and beyond. If the goal is to spark institutional change, then affecting the workplace is a good place to start. Thirdly, starting these courses and creating demand for them may very well attract more diverse talent to Brown, enriching the education it delivers. The important takeaway here is that simply requiring DIAP courses isn’t sufficient when there aren’t enough relevant and engaging DIAP courses for everyone, especially those in STEM concentrations. Focusing on expanding our course offerings in departments that currently lack DIAP-designated courses is vital to this policy proposal.

A lot of the backlash and confusion surrounding this proposal seems to stem from the lack of a concrete mechanism besides adding a graduation requirement. Upon further inspection, it becomes clear that the mechanism is actually integral to the successful adoption of such a policy change, and thus more discussion on what courses should be added, how they should be added, and who should teach them is equally vital. To be clear, I don’t particularly agree or disagree that the DIAP requirement should be made mandatory. I do, however, think that if such a policy were to go through, then we need to diversify our courses on diversity.

~N