Excluded voices

Exploring epistemic injustice
in McGill classrooms

Johanna Cline,
Opinion Editor

It begins on the first day of the semester: The syllabus is monopolized by white men. When universities emphasize privileged voices, they dominate classroom conversations and textbooks, leaving little space for marginalized groups’ experiences. While academic institutions like McGill continue to enact policies against discrimination, these initiatives raise questions of what kinds of discrimination ought to be recognized within the university context.

First passed by Senate in 2007, McGill’s Employment Equity Policy sought to eliminate three kinds of discrimination: Direct, indirect, and systemic. McGill’s Senate is the governing body which oversees and makes decisions regarding academic matters of the university.

“McGill University is committed to developing policies, programs, practices and traditions that facilitate the full participation and advancement of members of historically disadvantaged groups in Canada,” the policy reads.

Yet, as of now, the policy has done little to curb epistemic discrimination, a research term that refers to injustice in knowledge production and dissemination. Philosopher Katherine Puddifoot defined this term in the chapter “Epistemic Discrimination” in The Routledge Handbook of the Ethics of Discrimination.

“Epistemic discrimination is prejudice, bias and discriminatory action suffered by individuals in their positions as epistemic agents, that is, as individuals who can acquire knowledge, justified belief or understanding,” Puddifoot wrote.

Professor Angela Campbell, Associate Provost of Equity and Academic Policies, understands the problem students face when looking at a syllabus.

“While there is no university-wide policy that requires syllabi to be representative of different identities […], pedagogically speaking, it is understood that students will benefit from access to varied perspectives and ideas,” Campbell wrote in a message to The McGill Tribune.

However, without a standard policy or equity training to hold teachers accountable, there are few avenues for McGill to regulate the inclusion of marginalized voices in syllabi.

McGill does not mandate equity training for professors. While many workplaces require employees to be trained on standards of equitable treatment in their profession, knowledge about how racism and sexism can manifest in the classroom is not a requirement for teaching staff. While outright bigotry is not tolerated at McGill, unconscious biases can lead to more subtle forms of discrimination. These could include professors calling on male students more often than women or overlooking micro-aggressions, such as derogatory language, during class discussions. Allowing these practices to continue can contribute to an unsafe learning environment that is not conducive to productive and nuanced discussion.

Some McGill faculties have made efforts to address equity in the classroom. The Faculty of Engineering, for example, has taken steps to address underrepresentation of women and racialized people. Professor Richard Chromik explained the ‘Teamwork Project,’ one initiative the faculty has started, which aims to teach students about equitable teamwork. It has been implemented in the faculty’s mandatory communications (CCOMS) course.

“[There were] instances of student behaviour that were inequitable,” Chromik said. “You would have a student that’s from an underrepresented group being the notetaker in a meeting, sort of undervalued, and they are not being given the same [attention] that everyone should be given.”

The ‘Teamwork Project’ will require students to complete a contract to hold them accountable to equitable practices in the classroom. Chromik hoped that the project would encourage students to work together as a team. Unfortunately, not all faculties make the effort to teach equity in the classroom.

As of 2009, the McGill student body was composed of approximately 30 per cent non-white students, with only three per cent of students being Black. As of 2017, 0.8 per cent were Indigenous. While women make up 59 per cent of students overall, these numbers vary widely from program to program: For example, women make up roughly one-third of the student body in the Faculty of Engineering. Teaching staff representation is also dismal. Many departments, including Philosophy, Psychology, Religious Studies and Political Science do not have a single Black or Indigenous professor and few, if any, professors of colour. In the Faculty of Engineering, less than 20 per cent of teaching staff are female.

Jessica Karaguesian is the president of Scientista McGill, a student-run chapter of an organization dedicated to increasing opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). She noted the lack of professor diversity in some STEM departments.

“A couple of our executive team members have studied mathematics, for example,” Karageusian wrote in a message to The McGill Tribune. “None of them have ever had a female professor [teach their] classes.”

A lack of Black representation, among other issues, motivated McGill’s Black Students’ Network (BSN) to propose the Black students’ Bill of Rights in Fall 2019. This bill also called for an increase in services and support for Black students in their proposed motion. These included, among others, the recruitment of Black counsellors, funding for Black student initiatives, and discrimination-free classrooms.

The Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) Indigenous Affairs Commissioner Tomas Jirousek has been actively trying to increase representation and resources for Indigenous people at McGill.

“The only way to truly ‘Indigenize’ [McGill] is to see Indigenous knowledge holders from a variety of different backgrounds hired,” Jirousek said.

Jirousek has been fighting for Indigenous rights on campus during his time at McGill, and his efforts include heading the #ChangetheName campaign and publishing an open letter calling for increased Indigenous rights within SSMU and on campus in Fall 2019. He has also called for better hiring practices for professors in the Indigenous Studies program.

The lack of diversity has caught the administration’s attention. Campbell emphasized that McGill has made a commitment to equitable hiring.

“The University is committed to employment equity as seen through its Employment Equity Policy and associated reporting to Senate on this topic (biennially),” Campbell wrote.

Campbell also notes that the university has made a special effort when it comes to hiring professors for the Indigenous studies program.

“The University presently has underway a provostial hiring initiative focused on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education,” Campbell wrote. “Dozens of faculty members involved in this recruitment initiative take part in sessions dedicated to particular issues related to Indigeneity, especially within the academy. Examples of issues covered include: How to recognize and account for the disproportionate mentoring and advising work that Indigenous colleagues will often undertake, and being mindful to avoid measures/steps that have tokenizing and burdensome effects.”

All faculty on academic recruitment committees must receive employment equity training. This training includes education on unconscious bias and underrepresentation of certain equity groups at the university.

However, while McGill may be committed to equitable hiring practices in its policies, the blatant lack of diversity in teaching staff indicates a shortcoming in the policies’ application. In the Final Report on the Provost’s Task Force on Indigenous Studies and Indigenous Education, the administration stated that they aim to hire 35 Indigenous tenure track professors. Even if the university completes this goal, however, Indigenous professors would still only make up approximately 2 per cent of the total tenured professors employed at McGill.

McGill Law alumna and Assistant Dean of Recruitment and Admissions Andra Syvänen (BCL/LLB ‘14) says that the Faculty of Law is working to increase representation in the classroom.

“Excellence comes in many forms,” Syvänen said in an interview with the Tribune. “It can mean different things to different people and communities [...] diverse voices can add to the richness of the learning experience for all students, be it in class discussions, group projects, or conversations with peers in the hallway [….] As an alumna of McGill Law [...], I can certainly attest to the fact that having a multitude of perspectives within the faculty community allowed for a more nuanced, insightful and thoughtful learning experience that better prepared me for life after graduation.”

Honouring different forms of knowledge is crucial to making students from diverse backgrounds feel welcome and supported, appealing to different learning styles, creating a richer education, and finding more innovative approaches to the various issues that academia tries to solve. Students benefit from seeing people who look like them or share their identity in positions of academic authority.

“Seeing diverse professors and staff in senior roles can give students motivation and hope to achieve similar things for themselves, and demonstrates that their personal background and identity need not hinder them in achieving their goals,” Karaguesian said.

Having a diverse group of scholars featured on the syllabus also helps students see how people from all backgrounds make valuable contributions to their field. However, incorporating different voices into the classroom goes beyond having a token Black or female scholar on a syllabus. Reconsidering Western teaching styles entirely is necessary when trying to convey knowledge from different cultures.

“For many Indigenous nations, we learn through oral knowledge transmission through storytelling, land-based learning practices, and traditional songs and dances,” Jirousek said. “Not only do these pedagogical practices support intergenerational knowledge transmission, but they foster the cultural and spiritual well-being of Indigenous pupils. These type of learning styles have proven successful in Indigenous communities, and it can be difficult for some Indigenous students to adapt and transition to an institution such as McGill.”

In addition to making more students feel respected in the classroom, valuing input from scholars from all backgrounds helps find solutions to problems that academia sets out to solve. In STEM fields, for example, researchers from diverse backgrounds can help a research team consider more perspectives.

“Women may catch gender-related considerations when research is being conducted,” Karageusian said. “For example, several drugs were pulled off the market in the 1990s because more severe side-effects manifested in women than men. Without representation not only of women working in science, but also of female considerations in scientific studies, our research has oftentimes proven less effective.”

The same problem exists in the humanities. Philosophy, for example, aims to uncover the truth about the human condition, yet the field cannot claim to speak on behalf of humanity if its voice is composed mainly of white men. Without the inclusion of minority and female voices, academic fields like psychology, sociology, economics, and political science can never fulfill their goals of understanding society. These issues are at the forefront of many student activist movements, including Jirousek’s work pushing for McGill to reconsider hiring practices. “McGill needs to undergo a broad, immediate, and expansive hiring of Indigenous faculty […] McGill should be open to hiring Indigenous peoples without a formal western education,” Jirousek said. “Also of importance, is for McGill to expand its course offerings for Indigenous students living in-community [...] This will need to be undertaken with the essential steps of expanding community outreach, linguistic support, and financial support to Indigenous students.” Karaguesian says that Scientista would also like to see a cultural shift for women in STEM. For instance, syllabi should more accurately reflect the histories of female scientists.

“[Scientista would] like to see more flexible and female-friendly opportunities in science,” Karaguesian said. “[…] We would like to see the societal pressures placed on men and women become more balanced, thus fostering more equal platforms on which both genders can balance professional and personal life.”

Supporting women in academia is not possible without a re-thinking of gender norms and how they impact women’s careers.

Beyond teaching policies and faculty quotas, students also want to see greater support for female and non-white students in terms of services and opportunities.

“McGill cannot expect to transform itself into a leader in reconciliation-centred education if it fails to transcend a colonial infrastructure,” Jirousek said. “We need to invest in culturally relevant support mechanisms for Indigenous faculty, and students, if we truly expect these changes to make an impact.”

Being committed to diversity means more than just thinking about equity and inclusion. If McGill wants to uphold its commitment to eliminating discrimination, it must prioritize equitable hiring and training of faculty. Course materials and pedagogies also need to be revisited to include different voices and perspectives. Be it a syllabus monopolized by white, male philosophers, a woman being talked over in conference, or a white professor teaching a course on Black culture, the administration must recognize that the exclusion of diverse perspectives represents a type of discrimination that both detracts from its academic potential and hinders students’ capacity to succeed.