Academic philosophy in the U.S. has diversity problem.
On October 16 I'll be speaking about this at a MAP (Minorities And Philosophy) conference in Princeton. I'd like to toss some thoughts out there and solicit your suggestions.
Most of my previous work on these issues has focused on documenting disproportion. Compared to other academic disciplines in the U.S., philosophy is disproportionately white, male, and Anglophone. Plausibly, but not as well documented, its students are also disproportionately upper- and upper-middle class. Disabled people might also be underrepresented in philosophy compared to other fields (as well as compared to the population as a whole).
For October's talk, I want to discuss remedies. I'd like to suggest a few specific, concrete things that university philosophy instructors can do; and I'd like those specific, concrete things to target the situation in academic philosophy in particular.
Here are my two favorite ideas so far:
(1.) Encourage very-small-group discussion in the middle of class. (This sounds boring, but humor me for a few hundred words, because really it's magic!) Here's how to do it. Pause for 5-10 minutes in the middle of class. Have the students divide into groups of exactly 3 or 4 (not 2, not 5), and have them discuss one particular question from the lecture. To motivate discussion, require them to produce a simple written document, to be graded pass/fail. (For example, have each group produce what they think is the best consideration in favor of position P and the best consideration against position P.) Wander around during these 5-10 minutes, prodding groups that don't seem to be on task. Finally, reconvene and then have groups summarize the conclusions they came to.
I find that this exercise produces a pleasantly loud classroom, and that afterward a much broader range of people are willing to contribute to class discussion. Quiet people have finally got their mouths moving, and they probably found that what they said was respected by the 2-3 people they mentioned it to. This emboldens them to try it on the class as a whole. Also, the instructor can draw out normally quiet people by asking what their group thought. Individual students aren't as personally on the hook, since they can attribute the view to "the group", and they have already rehearsed the answer by talking it over with the group. If all else fails they can read what they've written down. This broadening of the range of people discussing philosophy in the classroom persists for the remainder of the period, often longer.
Here's why I think this exercise improves diversity: Philosophy classroom discussion is normally dominated by people with high academic/cultural capital. In the U.S. this means: rich, white, male, non-disabled, self-confident, parents with high educational attainment, fluent in highbrow English speaking styles. These are the students mostly likely to have the boldness to announce, in the second week of class, in front of their peers and professor, confident opinions about why Kant is wrong, or relativism is really the correct meta-ethical theory, or David Lewis's metaphysics is objectively better than Hilary Putnam's. (For an uncharitable version of the phenomenon, see this penetrating article.) Others need to be drawn into the conversation. Very-small-group discussion, in this above format, is the best way I know how.
(2.) Choose one non-white philosophical tradition to learn enough about so that you truly appreciate the range of positions and arguments in that tradition. (For me this is the ancient Chinese tradition.) This will take some time. But it needn't be unpleasant and you needn't aim to develop sufficient expertise to publish articles addressing that tradition. It's neither important nor achievable to have a global understanding of every tradition, and a superficial sampler approach risks misrepresenting and oversimplifying other traditions. What is important is that you have a moderately deep understanding of at least one other tradition, whose contributions you can discuss, with knowledge and enthusiasm, alongside the contributions of the currently dominant white European-derived tradition.
Interesting philosophy has emerged in every cultural tradition. How could it be otherwise? Philosophical issues are fundamental to one's worldview. In every culture, there will be thoughtful people who have reflected insightfully on such issues. Students know this. If we present the history of philosophy as the history of what white guys have thought about the fundamental issues of the human condition, then students will understandably regard philosophy in their university as an "area studies" program of white-guy thought. Even white students might forgivably be annoyed by this.
My hunch is this sort of cross-cultural engagement conveys a general message that encourages diversity of all sorts -- the message that you do not see philosophical value only in the words of people of high cultural power in your own tradition.
I offer these as concrete ideas for diversifying philosophy that individual philosophy professors can realistically implement. I'm interested in further thoughts and suggestions!