Report on ‘more diverse curriculum’ at Arts and Culture leads to commotion among staff

Report on ‘more diverse curriculum’ at Arts and Culture leads to commotion among staff

“Painful”, “inappropriate” and “harmful”, say lecturers

08-11-2023 · News

The curriculum of the bachelor’s programme of Arts & Culture is not inclusive and diverse enough. That is what a group of students concluded in a workshop on diversity, of which the report was sent to all lecturers without any comments. The result: from critical to downright furious e-mails from staff members. Others, in turn, criticised the harsh tone of the e-mails.

Unfortunately, quite a few lecturers did not want to talk with Observant, partly because they don’t want to get into trouble by doing so, they said. Luckily, there are written sources: an extensive exchange of e-mails by staff members, the minutes of a staff meeting, and certainly also the report with which it all started: the workshop about diversity and inclusion.

The conclusions of the report are harsh: the programme of Arts & Culture (AC) is “very Eurocentric,” “mostly male-focused” and “aimed at white Dutch people”, and does absolutely “no justice to the diversity of society”. Subjects such as racism and colonialism are treated “superficially, as if you are reading a children’s book”; many lecturers “simply don’t know enough about it, have insufficient knowledge”. During the lessons, people of colour are talked about in a “dehumanising and superficial” manner, while many people at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASoS) “act as if racism doesn’t exist”.

A report from that workshop dropped into the inboxes of all the AC lecturers last month. Nine students had participated in the workshop last spring. The initiative was taken by the Diversifying the BA Arts and Culture Curriculum working group, which was set up by a number of lecturers. It should be seen as “a first step toward including our students’ voices in the pressing conversation around how to make the bachelor AC curriculum (...) more inclusive, more diverse, and more up to date,” said the working group in the report.

According to the participating students, this must be done by “decolonising” the curriculum, dealing with literature from people of colour, and by appointing lecturers who “actually know something about subjects such as colonialism and LGBTQ-issues”. Students and staff should also be trained in aspects such as “gender-neutral pronouns and gender identity” and it is necessary “particularly for white students” to contextualise certain literature better.

Parody

The report caused quite some indignation and questions among staff members. When programme director Darryl Cressman distributed it, he did so with the brief message that the report would be discussed during a staff meeting a week later. But who exactly gave the working group the task to organise this workshop? And will the report be used as a point of departure to revise the bachelor’s programme? There was a lot of vagueness about this at that time, as appeared from the e-mail exchange among staff members that followed the original message from the programme director, which Observant now processes.

Harry Oosterhuis, historian and lecturer at the faculty for more than thirty years, is highly critical: “Is this report a parody?” he starts his e-mail to colleagues. “The report offers nothing but a caricature of what AC is and has been.” The students in the workshop don’t appear to be “impeded by considerable knowledge about our Arts and Culture program and its background and neither by the ability to differentiate between analysing, understanding and knowing on the one hand and appraisal and judgement on the other hand.” Also, as far as ‘the safety’ of students is concerned when they feel insulted: “In historical sources and more recent texts we find ‘offensive’ idioms again and again. Does this imply that such writings should not be read any more by students because their feelings might be hurt?”

He also doubts whether the workshop is an adequate starting point for a discussion about a revision of the curriculum. This is something that other staff members also wonder about in their e-mails. Is the small group of only nine students representative? A few staff members write that they don’t acknowledge the accusations in the report, based on their own talks with students and regular student evaluations.

Furthermore, some took offence to the fact that individuals were mentioned in the report. For example, the students spoke about “teachers we love” and “problematic teachers”. In both categories, a number of names were mentioned, only the negative cases having been anonymised in the report – of whom it is clear among staff who were meant, some say. That this was distributed among colleagues in this way, staff members say in the e-mails was “painful”, “inappropriate” and “harmful”.

Careless

Assistant professor Simone Schleper, who teaches in the bachelor’s programme and is a member of the working group, says that she is shocked by the tone of the reactions. “I did not expect the report to be so explosive. Unfortunately, it also lacked some context. Nobody said that the group of students was representative. But it is important to hear everyone’s voice, so also these students’ voices.”

“It was indeed a bit sloppy to send it around without sufficient context,” programme director Cressman admits. “But I don’t understand the negative reactions. It is very inappropriate to voice such criticism in a ‘reply-all’ to all staff members. That is harmful for the cohesiveness within the faculty. A number of staff members have put a lot of effort into this report, because they want to improve the programme. I very much applaud that. Just like I would if someone came up with another idea, for example, whether you could offer the bachelor’s programme completely in Dutch.”

But could distributing a report in which students make accusations about individual lecturers not be harmful too? “No, I don’t think so,” says Cressman. “In evaluations of the education programme, lecturers are also confronted with many fierce remarks from students, you learn to deal with them.” Schleper also feels that the report is not inappropriate. “You must be able to maintain a professional distance from students and their statements.”

Revised curriculum

Cressman emphasises that the report is intended primarily as a starting point for a discussion. “Sometimes, I get the feeling that people think I have a certain agenda, but that is certainly not the case. I personally wouldn’t dare say whether the curriculum should be more diverse or not, I don't know the content as well as the course coordinators. But it is important to have this discussion. If the question is raised in the faculty, the Executive Board, or by students, what the situation is regarding diversity within our programme, we must be able to show that we have thought about it. But there are no plans at the moment to revise the curriculum.”

Janosch Prinz, chairman of the body that must approve changes in the curriculum, the Educational Programme Committee (of the bachelor’s programme of AC), confirms the latter. “Traditionally, the programme focuses on Western culture. That will continue to be the case, we will not suddenly start to focus on Eastern cultures too. First of all, we don’t have the necessary expertise, but also because this is already offered elsewhere at this university, such as in the Global Studies programme.” Despite this, the students in the report criticise the Western focus and say that they were misled when choosing their study programme by “false promises and lies”. Prinz: “That was indeed remarkable. In the coming time, we will check whether our marketing is in line with the content of the programme.”

Colonialism

So, will absolutely nothing change within the programme? I wouldn’t say that, says Prinz. “You always need to check whether, for example, the literature is still up to date. In addition, the student population is becoming more diverse.” The programme should reflect that, according to Prinz. What does that mean exactly? “That you place topics more often in a broader context, for example that of imperialist and colonialist history. After all, Western cultures were partly shaped by contact with other cultures. Studying them is more important today than it was a few decades ago. Often it is a matter of minor adjustments, such as revising the literature. This has already been done in parts of the bachelor’s programme over the past ten years. That is in the hands of the lecturers, where they can listen to the students as well.”

Is that possible if students take on a fierce tone in an evaluation or during a lecture? For example, when it comes to ‘sensitive’ subjects such as ‘zwarte piet’ or the controversial French author Michel Houellebecq? Or when the “N-word” is dropped, an example from the report with which students have a problem? “That is a matter of experience,” says Prinz. “You have to make that context clear as a teacher. But it is important not to avoid such topics, because critical analysis of divisions and extreme positions in Western culture is an important part of our education.”

Underlying sentiments

A week after the report was distributed, mid-October, the staff meeting was held. According to Cressman, excuses were made to those who felt hurt by the report or the tone of the e-mails. “After that, we were able to have a good discussion.” Prinz also called the meeting a “constructive one. When you engage in discussion, it appears that the differences among colleagues are not as great as appeared in the e-mails.” According to Schleper, the situation also shows that there are underlying sentiments. “For example, about the workload, or maybe not everyone feels appreciated for their efforts for the study programme in the past. That can easily lead to polarisation, also in other discussions, such as those about internationalisation. We are only a small group of lecturers. It is important that we continue to discuss and work together.”

Programme director Cressman, who wants to bury the affair as quickly as possible, tries to sketch a more positive image. He suggests that this is no longer a discussion. “It lies in the past, the problem has been solved. Since the meeting, I have hardly heard anyone talk about it. The fact that Observant is now writing about it, is a pity, as far as I am concerned, because it can stir up the discussion again.”

No handbook

Does the discussion about diversity also exist in other programmes within FASoS? “In some places more than others, but the discussion is taking place everywhere,” says board member Patrick Bijsmans (education portfolio). “It is, after all, also a theme that exists in society. You cannot avoid that, just like Artificial Intelligence.” Does that mean that the board would interfere in a programme, if it is not sufficiently diverse? “No, I don’t see that happening any time soon. We leave that to those who run the programmes. But we do feel it is important that they have the discussion about diversity.”

But Bijsmans acknowledges that this is not always easy. “There is always a certain amount of unease with change. There are plenty of examples from other universities where such discussions quickly led to polarisation. That appeared to nearly happen here too, with this report. Fortunately, I hear from staff that the continuation of the discussion is currently on a more pleasant note. But it continues to be tough. If a handbook were to exist, everyone would like to have it.”

Photo: Joey Roberts

Categories: News, news_top
Tags: diversity,decolonisation,inclusivity,curriculum,report,arts and culture,revision,fasos,studenten

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