Diversity in our Syllabi

Portrait: Jane Sumner
Photo by Jacob Van Blarcom, CLAgency student

Have you ever really, closely, inspected your syllabus? Not just to see how the grading scale works, but to see who’s represented in it?

Assistant Professor Jane Sumner has created a website that helps professors and others figure out the gender and racial balance in their bibliographies and syllabi.

“I want to present my students with a diversity of perspectives, and since our backgrounds and identities as scholars shape how we see the worldand thus which questions we ask and how we go about answering themtrying to assess the diversity of the researchers is one good way [to try to do] that.”

The Syllabi

Sumner first became interested in this topic in grad school, when she found that a syllabus in one of her classes was predominantly made up of male authors and had little diversity.

She initially started sifting through her different bibliographies and syllabi to find gender identity and backgrounds of authors, but it was a tedious task.

“I figured there had to be a way to automate this process, and I like writing code in my spare time, so I decided just to solve my own problem,” Sumner says. A friend mentioned that she should make a website. So, she did just that. 

The website Sumner created estimates the percentage of women, as well as census-defined racial groups, who are represented in a bibliography or syllabus. It was recently published by PS: Political Science and Politics, an academic journal with Cambridge University Press. Currently, an average of 35 people visit it per day, and a social media post on the U of M Department of Political Science’s account garnered a great deal of interest.

Representation in Classes

The website is by no means a substitute to doing research to assess how diverse a group of sources is, and a computer algorithm cannot make up for all forms of diverse backgrounds. But Sumner believes that it’s an important step, at the least, to including more representation in school readings.

“My hope is that it removes practical roadblocks for people who would be interested in figuring out the gender balance of their bibliographies and syllabi but are deterred by the time and effort it takes to do so.”

When Sumner used the website on her own syllabi, she found that most of the authors in her quantitative methodology work were male and white. This led her to start integrating more work by women, scholars of color, and authors of diverse backgrounds and perspectives into her classes.

Underrepresentation in reading lists forms an unfortunate narrative that only certain types of people are capable of being exceptional in their field. Sumner wants to help change this story.

“I want my students to all be able to look at the research we’re analyzing and see that someone like them could do it, no matter who they are.”

This story was written by an undergraduate student in CLA.

Share on: