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Beyond Aristotle: Researchers seek greater diversity in philosophy

University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants recipients ask serious questions — and propose tangible solutions — to the enduring diversity debate in philosophy
December 1, 2016
University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants recipients Jeremey Fantl, Megan Delehanty and Richard Zach are committed to diversifying the syllabi of introductory-level philosophy courses in order to create a more inclusive climate for learning. Photo by Jessica Snow, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants recipients Jeremey Fantl, Megan Delehanty and Richard Zach are committed to diversifying the syllabi of introductory-level philosophy courses in order to create a more inclusive climate for learning. Photo by Jessica Snow, Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning

The late afternoon sun streams through the 12th floor windows of the Social Sciences Building, home of the Philosophy Department on campus. A quiet space littered with sofas and bookshelves and a few students deeply absorbed in the reading of actual books, it hardly seems the realm of a field known for sometimes aggressive discourse and argumentation. And in philosophy these days, no issue is more heatedly debated than diversity.

“Philosophy has a real diversity problem,” says Megan Delehanty, an assistant philosophy professor and the principal grant holder for the University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants project, Diversifying Our Syllabi. “Slightly over 20 per cent of tenured faculty in North America are female and even fewer are from an ethnic minority. In philosophy, we seem to be teaching first-year students from underrepresented groups that someone ‘like me’ doesn’t succeed in this discipline. If they don’t see themselves represented, it contributes to their sense that they are not going to make good philosophers.” 

This is one hypothesis as to why so few women and people from ethnic minorities continue in philosophy to become majors or pursue graduate studies and is supported by a study done at Georgia State University. The aim of Delehanty’s project is to promote the greater representation of successful women philosophers in introductory level courses.

While Delehanty acknowledges that greater diversity is an issue across the discipline, this project focuses primarily on gender. To facilitate this change, her group plans to develop databases of work by women that are specifically targeted to the content of non-logic, 200-level philosophy courses. To supplement the articles and books, the databases will also include materials such as class activities and questions on new readings and topics.

Creating a more inclusive climate for learning

“This is something we can monitor. There is a way to quantify this. We can create a climate where we encourage people to include a broader range of philosophers and topics in philosophy that have traditionally been ignored. Feminist philosophy for example,” says Delehanty.  “When I was in graduate school, I considered doing a secondary master’s in women’s studies and feminist philosophy. I was told outright by my program director not to do it. That was as recent as 2005. Because feminist philosophy is not good philosophy and I wouldn’t be taken seriously if I did it.” 

However, attitudes may be changing. Public interest in this issue has increased over the last year with articles published in the New York Times (May and October), CBC News (October) and Times Higher Education (September). At Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held this year at the University of Calgary, Timothy Kenyon, a professor from the University of Waterloo, addressed this issue during his presentation, Eliteness and Diversity in Philosophy.

Delehanty notes, “In the last five to seven years, there has been a critical momentum regarding diversity in the discipline.” She also acknowledges that the contributions and support of Jeremy Fantl and Richard Zach, faculty members in the Department of Philosophy and co-applicants in the Teaching and Learning Grants project, have been invaluable. Fantl says, “It’s just the right thing to do. There are women and underrepresented groups who write on the topics we teach and it’s just unjust to prevent them from having exposure to their arguments. It’s good for the Philosophy Department, for the students in the classroom and for underrepresented philosophers who need more opportunities to present their work to broader audiences.” 

Students, both philosophy majors and non-majors, stand to benefit. “It’s about making these introductory level courses into a more satisfying experience for everyone,” says Delehanty.  

About the University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants Program

The University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants project Diversifying Our Syllabi was made possible through funding by the Provost’s Office. Designed to enhance student learning experiences, the program supports the development, implementation, critical examination and dissemination of innovative, evidence-based approaches to student learning in order to:

  • Integrate research evidence into teaching practice;
  • Generate new knowledge about teaching and learning at the University of Calgary; and
  • Disseminate the results of that work to benefit others.

The grants support different types of projects through three structural streams: practice grants, lesson study grants and Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) grants. Grants are eligible for up to $20,000 per year depending on the project type (individual or collaborative) and stream. Some restrictions apply for principal grant-holders.

More information on funding, eligibility and other requirements can be found on the Teaching and Learning Grants page of the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning website

The deadline for 2017-2018 University of Calgary Teaching and Learning Grants Program is Feb. 7, 2017. 

A drop-in consultation and brainstorming session will be held at the Taylor Institute on Dec. 8, 2016 from 1 to 2 p.m. Registration is online