By Aleksandra Szczodrowski |
Diversity is one of the key terms of the early 21st century. Much effort is directed at creating and fostering inclusive and diverse living and working conditions, and academia is no exception to this.
Yet, academia seems to be particularly entangled in elitist structures which frequently continue to favour tradition over progress. These elitist structures used to foster patriarchal and racist structures in the past, and – at least to some extent – they continue to do so in the present. Therefore, academia needs to do a better job at reflecting its own history to actively support a change of these structures in the present, to make way for a more diverse and inclusive environment in the near future.
Entering university for the first time, one of the main challenges lies in understanding the concealed but dominant hierarchies that are perpetuated by factors such as use of language and fashion as well as engagement in extracurricular activities. Academic terminology, for example, encodes superiority. Students coming from an academic background, who can look back on a family history that features past academic achievements, are more likely to the use this kind of professional jargon. On the other hand, this means that those students who, for example, have a migrant or working-class background might experience marginalisation solely for not being familiar to expressing themselves using academic vocabulary. This can create feelings of intimidation and inferiority that might even cause students to choose to drop out of university.
Furthermore, at times, sexism, racism, homo- and transphobia and further means of discrimination are perpetuated by academics in the name of “science” or “reason”. Albeit being frequently addressed in discussions on diversity and inclusion, they are also deemed as insignificant, “unacademic” in light of more “sophisticated” and “scientific” research. Instead of perpetuating these imperialist structures, academia must realise its exclusive and discriminatory structures and replace them with more inclusive ones.
Considering that universities and colleges are institutions of education, pedagogies of self-reflection and empathy need to be applied more vigorously there. I personally realised this abroad, when I attended a class on “Race and Ethnicity” at an Irish university. In this class, we regularly sat down in a circle and shared our personal experiences, impressions and attitudes. Back then, this was a very bewildering experience which I did not enjoy. It felt too personal, too “unacademic”, and too anecdotal.
However, nowadays I miss this style of teaching and learning. This class helped me reflect upon my own inherent biases in a protected space. The lecturer made sure that the atmosphere in class remained friendly. Nevertheless, biases and potential discriminatory attitudes did not remain unchallenged. We learned to view the topics and issues discussed from a broader perspective. This way, we were able to broaden our horizon by reflecting on the bias and flaws that affect us as academics.
Similar activities are also useful when dealing with topics such as discriminatory uses of language and practices related to gender, sexuality, and class. I believe that such exercises are highly necessary in order to criticise, reform and eventually transform the traditional structures of academia. An increase in self-reflection in classrooms would encourage a lasting dialogue about the inherent biases and potentially discriminatory views that might affect our work. Even if we, for example, openly criticise racism or sexism, we might still – unconsciously or even consciously – perpetuate discriminatory behaviour. Intersectionality begins with reflecting on ourselves.
Aleksandra Szczodrowski is currently enrolled in the English and Literatures master programme at the University of Bonn. Her research interests focus on issues of intersectionality, especially those concerning gender and race.
Image: By Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team from Germany (ws’08 (21)) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons