Arts Council to discuss diversity in the curriculum: "We should be able to ask: Why are we reading this text?"
We need a safe space to talk about diversity in the curriculum, says the Arts Council, who have helped put the topic on the agenda at the faculty. Students should be able to question the choices lecturers make about the curriculum, it says. Conservative Students acknowledge that this is an important discussion but thinks it needs to come from the bottom up.
It is mainly students from the Arts Council, the Student Council’s degree programme council for students at the Faculty of Arts, who have pushed for diversity in the curriculum to be discussed in the different faculty forums, such as the boards of studies and the academic council. But the fact that this issue has since become Art’s priority in AU’s action plan for gender equality, diversity and inclusion 2023-25 has attracted criticism from the academic council at Aarhus BSS.
Chair Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig and former vice-chair – and current member of the Student Council – Oliver Mølgaard Gertsen started raising the issue at internal meetings back in spring 2022 and were later invited to discuss the topic at Art’s Committee for Diversity and Equality.
For the Arts Council, it’s important that the curriculum reflects the society that students will be part of after they graduate, says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig. A society with many ethnicities, different sexual orientations, men and women – and people who don’t even identify as a man or a woman.
“It’s about getting a wider perspective. We need to read texts that represent the society we live in – with everything that involves. It’s also about the subject. What we need to learn about on the individual degree programmes, and how this curriculum represents society,” says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig.
Arts Council: It can be difficult to appraoch the topic
Her hope is that Art’s work on the action plan will result in a “more responsive classroom”.
“That there will be a greater general understanding that we are a very diverse student body. We are very different people with different talents and different approaches. Different upbringings and family backgrounds. So we hope that there will be more willingness to talk about these differences and what they can contribute. And that this can feed into a discussion about the curriculum,” says Camila Jytte Kær Kønig.
At the moment, Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig suspects that students who are new to the university or to a specific course are too afraid to ask questions about the curriculum.
“Students further into their studies might be brave enough to ask, but for new students – at the university or on a specific degree programme – it’s not always that easy.”
“Students further into their studies might be brave enough to ask, but for new students – at the university or on a specific degree programme – it’s not always that easy. So we hope that by showing it’s important to them, the management can send a message to students that it’s okay to question their teaching,” she says.
Isn’t there already a responsive classroom and an opportunity to question the curriculum? Why do you think this needs to be formalised?
“There are two evaluations per semester where students can give their feedback, but, other than that, it can be difficult to approach the topic in a fairly formal setting – both with fellow students and with lecturers. And if we continue to limit these important questions, the academic quality of our degree programmes will suffer. We believe that formalising the discussion will provide a safe environment for students to ask these questions,” says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig.
Not just a token initiative
The call for more diversity in the curriculum is not only born out of a set of ideals; it is also based on students’ experience that their curriculum or their team of teachers sometimes lacks a range of perspectives. Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig is studying for a Master’s degree in English, and she and her fellow students have often noticed the lack of women in the curriculum, she explains.
“We have discussed the lack of representation in general on the English programme. For example, if would be good if we could study more texts written by women, or if we had more female lecturers. It’s about being able to make a change and broaden the perspective,” says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig.
Oliver Mølgaard Gertsen believes that one of the most important things students learn at university is to relate critically to the things they’re presented with. This is also the approach students have to their curriculum, he explains, and it’s for this reason that they feel able to comment on it.
“The whole point of a university is to teach students to think critically. We need to be able to identify sources and question the material,” he says.
Both emphasise that there is nothing token about their focus. Texts on the curriculum shouldn’t be replaced for the sake of it. There must be an academic reason to do so. But focusing on diversity can also be academically justified, they argue.
We understand if lecturers see it as an attack on their academic expertise
The Arts Council is of the same opinion as the vice-dean for education at Arts, Niels Lehmann, who doesn’t want to impose guidelines on teachers regarding the curriculum. The important thing is being able to have the dialogue.
Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig once again refers to the responsive classroom, where students can discuss the curriculum with their lecturers naturally and openly.
She also recalls the time she took a supplementary subject in rhetoric and all the source texts were written by men, because the material came from Ancient Greece. We should be able to raise this issue, thinks Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig.
But the lecturer in rhetoric will of course say: These are the central and relevant texts, and they are all written by men – so what should I do?
“Exactly, and we completely understand this point. That’s why it’s so important that decisions are made in the context of the individual subject. And that’s why it’s so important that there is an open discussion around this topic. There are many lecturers who have taught here for many years and who are incredibly good at what they do,” says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig, while Oliver Mølgaard Gertsen adds:
“We completely understand if they see this as an attack on their academic expertise, but again we say: This is not what we want. We simply want to create a space for dialogue,” he says.
But isn’t it the lecturer who is best placed to decide which texts are relevant?
“I understand where this argument comes from, but I don’t completely agree. I agree in the sense that the lecturers are extremely competent and that, in our first years at university, we need to learn how to be a student – but part of this is precisely about being critical and investigating other perspectives. And it’s also about being able to ask: Why are we reading this text? Why has our course been designed in this way when this other way could encourage more inclusion and make more sense?” says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig, who continues:
“Don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s dangerous to view our lecturers as absolute authorities. Not out of a lack of respect, but because we need to learn to think critically, and this is what we excel at at university,” she says.
Questioning norms and reading authors other than white men
In the Arts Council’s work plan for spring 2023, it says that the council will try to “work towards more norm-critical teaching that includes more recent texts, authors other than white men, and texts that reflect our current society and diversity”.
According to LGBT+ Denmark, norm criticism is when we “question and challenge the assumptions we have about reality, for example that there are only two genders or that the normal thing is to be heterosexual.”
But the council’s aims, says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig, should be understood more as a general direction for its work with the curriculum rather than an actual plan.
“They were written as a response to our genuine opinion, as students, that our curriculum should be better. It needs to include more perspectives, and this was the most specific thing we could address and say: Now we have a place to start and something to aim towards, so that our curriculum can become more representative and inclusive,” says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig.
Conservative Students: We’re not against diversity, but it mustn’t come before academic integrity
The student political association Conservative Students has nothing against discussing diversity in the curriculum at university. But they believe it should be rooted in academic value and not imposed from above. It should be a conversation between students, lecturers and the relevant boards and councils. This is explained by Max Manøe Bjerregaard, chair of Conservative Students.
“It could end up being pure gesture politics”
“Diversity is a wonderful thing and not something we are against as an association, but it mustn’t come before academic integrity. It must be discussed in the context of the individual degree programme or subject. We’re worried that individual subjects won’t be taken into account if Arts adopts a general policy. It could end up being pure gesture politics if we say: Now we need to work on diversity,” says Max Manøe Bjerregaard.
He studies philosophy, and students on this programme have just discussed diversity in the curriculum with their lecturer. But, as Max Manøe Bjerregaard emphasises, this discussion came from the bottom up.
“I study philosophy, and we have actually just discussed the issue of diversity. I think we did it in a really good way. We acknowledged that, in some areas of philosophy, there are limits to how diverse the curriculum can be. For example, in ancient Greek philosophy and medieval philosophy, there are no female authors. And there are obvious reasons for this; societal structures at the time meant that women were unfortunately unable to practise these disciplines. We also discussed the possibility of getting more female philosophers or authors on the curriculum, but we agreed this would have to be done in the context of the subject and with the aim of further improving the academic quality of the programme,” says Max Manøe Bjerregaard.
Chair: Diversity can become too abstract
If diversity in the curriculum ends up being about representing society, it will become too abstract, thinks Max Manøe Bjerregaard.
“Diversity and representation are very abstract terms. They can refer to age but also to gender or ethnicity. And so we move further and further away from an academic discussion about what makes sense. If I take my own degree programme as an example again, we could discuss whether it would improve the academic quality of the programme if we included more Eastern philosophers. But this is of course a specific case,” he says.
Once Arts includes the topic as a specific initiative in a working plan for the entire faculty, Conservative Students fear that it will further poliarise the debate, because, according to the association, it will sharpen the distinction between diversity and academic expertise. Max Manøe Bjerregaard believes that the issue should arise naturally from the individual subjects.
“This initiative has not come from the bottom up – from the students on the individual degree programmes. It’s likely that one group of students decided to go to the council, and now these requirements will be imposed on us all. It’s true that people are saying it’s a discussion we need to have on the individual degree programmes. But then it will of course be an enforced discussion,” he says.
Students walked out during a lecture at UCPH
The debate about diversity in the curriculum at Aarhus University comes at the same time as a group of students walked out of a lecture at the University of Copenhagen on 11 October after their lecturer used the N-word whilst reading aloud from a colonialist illustration, as reported in Uniavisen on 11 October. Many students complained about the incident later. The director of studies told Uniavisen that the lecturer in question agreed that the specific lecture should be “adjusted slightly”. The lecturer has also apologised to the class.
Max Manøe Bjerregaard thinks it’s important that students rely on the lecturer to know most about the subject. But the lecturer must also be open to dialogue.
“We have to acknowledge that it’s the lecturer who has to teach and who knows what needs to be in the curriculum. And, in my experience, most lecturers are open to discussing the issue. But it is of course problematic if you can’t have a dialogue about it. You mentioned this example from the University of Copenhagen, and we are very sorry it took place. This wasn’t really a discussion about the subject but was more about emotions. Using a word that makes people leave the room is not really conducive to dialogue. And then it becomes more difficult to have this discussion about diversity and academic quality,” says the chair of Conservative Students.
Members of the Arts Council are convinced that by engaging in dialogue and being aware of topics or words that some students might consider problematic, we can avoid a situation like the one at UCPH.
“If they had created a safe space for discussion from the start, I don’t think they would have ended up in a situation where people needed to leave”
“If they had created a safe space for discussion from the start, I don’t think they would have ended up in a situation where people needed to leave. Then the students could have asked: Why are you using this word? Or what do you hope to achieve by showing us these pictures?” says Camilla Jytte Kær Kønig.
“I would also venture to say that, when students walk out, it’s a sign of powerlessness. And it’s of course terrible that students need to do this. I don’t know all the details of this case, but I could imagine it’s just as frustrating for the lecturer,” says the chair of the Arts Council.