The Politics of Studying Dead White Men in Colleges and Universities

Textbooks and anthologies used on college and university campuses haven’t caught quite on to the idea of multiculturalism, which is why most students can still expect the bulk of their studies to be focused on dead white men.

This doesn’t mean that culturally sensitive instructors, myself included, can’t change that trend, however.

The key lies in textbook selection. Most colleges and universities like to give their instructors and professors a certain degree of academic freedom, and getting to choose which textbooks you require for your students is one such freedom.

Case in point: a few years back, I was asked to teach an Introduction to the Short Story course, designed for sophomores and juniors. Since this course was offered on a regular basis, the department already had desk copies of the “go to” textbook most instructors had used in previous terms.

While perusing this textbook, I noticed there wasn’t very much “variety” in terms of what was being offered, so I decided not to use what was readily available.

Making this decision meant that, over the next couple of weeks, in addition to grading student papers, completing my own assignments (I was in the Ph.D. program, so I was also taking courses), and reading tons of fiction submissions for the university’s literary journal, I would also need to research different textbooks until I could find one suitable for the way I intended to teach the course.

This meant more than a few hours online and in the library, sifting through different websites to find textbooks, and then checking the Table of Contents to ensure that “variety” I was after.

You can see where I’m going here: dead white guys and their theories/writing/accomplishments are a staple supply, whereas trying to break the mold requires a bit more effort from the instructor.

The extra time spent choosing a more suitable textbook made a big difference in my class. I was able to provide a sampling of different kinds of writing from different kinds of writers to my students. For many, my class served as their first experience with Russian writers, Spanish writers, African American writers, and Asian writers, and many of them expressed their gratitude through the course of the semester.