Discussions

Should minority students have priority in choosing their modules? {Discussion}

The time has come for us first-year students to start thinking about modules for next year, and this has brought up a lot of questions for me. I’ve thought about what my interests are, what direction I want my degree to go in, what texts I want to study – but it has also made me think about something more controversial.

There are a lot of modules in my university’s literature course that focus on minorities. We have modules on women writers, Latin American literature, African writing, and many more. There is one module in particular called Queer Literature and Theory, and it’s the main reason I chose to study at the University of East Anglia. This module is for third-year students, so technically I shouldn’t even be concerned about this until next year, but I started thinking: what if I don’t get it? It’s a very popular module, and a lot of students don’t get it because there are just too many who want to study that particular area. This is where my idea for today’s discussion post originated.

I want to make perfectly clear that the question here is not whether minority students stand above everyone else and get to pick their modules first, the question is whether minority students should have the right to get to do the modules that represent their culture, background, and identity.

I am going to talk about this using pros and cons, because I definitely think there is a lot to say on each side of the argument. The pros will highlight why minority students should have priority in choosing their modules, and the cons will highlight why they shouldn’t.

 

pros

  • Students should have the right to study texts that represent them. After reading hundreds of texts by straight-while-males, if there is a module that finally focuses on texts that you can identify with, shouldn’t you have the right to study those texts and be a part of that module?
  • Students should have the right to learn about their own history. You probably know a lot about how middle-class, straight, white people lived through history, but what about your own history? I don’t remember ever discussing the way LGBT+ people fought their way through the Middle Ages. I have read about it in my own free time, but I was never academically told anything about it. So I have the right to be part of a module that teaches me my own history … right?
  • If you don’t let students who are represented by the texts you’re studying into your module, you will have an unfair discussion. What’s the point of studying queer literature if the people who end up writing essays about it are all non-LGBT+?

 

cons

  • Every student should have the same rights within their course. You can’t really give priority for module choices to certain students because of where they come from or the way they identify. This will just lead to a very complicated discussion about where you draw the line – if some students have more rights than others, where does it stop? And how do you decide what rights to give to whom?
  • People who don’t belong to the minority that is being studied should be educated, and thus should be part of the module. If you teach LGBT+ people about other LGBT+ people, they probably won’t learn much about accepting and understanding a minority, because they are just learning about themselves. However, if you teach non-LGBT+ people about LGBT+ people, it might make the world a better place one text at a time.
  • Giving minorities special priorities only exaggerates the dichotomy betweenย different people. This is kind of a very fragile argument, and one that can easily lead to dangerous thoughts. The main idea here is that all people are equal, and so no minority student should be treated differently, neither positively nor negatively. But ‘all people are equal’, while a nice thought, is very naive, and it erases the oppression minority groups have faced through history and still face every day. It’s kind of like saying ‘all lives matter’ instead of ‘black lives matter’. The heart of the people who say it is probably in the right place, but they are missing the point and erasing the issue.

 

This is obviously a very controversial subject, so I would love to hear from you guys. Do you have experience with something like this? Have you ever felt like your seminar group was discussing an issue that no one could really understand because it just wasn’t their own issue? Do you agree or disagree with any of the points I’ve made? And I especially want to hear from people involved in academia – how do you approach this idea?

I am kind of in the middle of both sides of the argument. I want to have the right to study my own identity, but I also think that giving some students more rights than others is a very dangerous thing to do. I hope I have given you something to think about – I am now going to go have food, cause I got so excited about writing this that I put basic survival needs such as nutrition aside, and I am nowย half dead.

‘Till next time and happy reading!

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27 thoughts on “Should minority students have priority in choosing their modules? {Discussion}

  1. Interesting discussion! You raise valid points on both sides, and I’m definitely in the middle on this as well. On the one hand, I think non-marginalized students should absolutely have the opportunity to study outside their frame of experience (I know it has certainly been beneficial for me).

    I took a Queer Theory class in college that was probably about 50-50, but the gender studies department was small enough that it just worked out that way. I also believe that students should be able to study literature that represents them – in fact, I hope in the future more universities do offer these types of courses.

    I honestly wish the English Lit requirements at my college were different, in that we were required to study non-white-male literature as opposed to being able to choose to study outside the box. But I think having a LGBT lit or an African-American lit requirement is just a little bit too much to ask of institutions that, for most of history, have upheld white patriarchal standards of what “good literature” is.

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    1. Some schools are or have changed their requirement standards so that instead of, say, having thematic or chronological requirements, they have diversity requirements. Of course, such a policy would also make the diverse courses more competitive, so the proposal here that marginalized groups have first choice on their courses would probably be difficult to implement if the school wanted everyone to access those types of courses.

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      1. Right, and it would also require hiring professors in those diverse areas as well. It would be a big commitment, but one can always hope things will change over time.

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        1. Many colleges prioritize diverse hires. However, the real problem is that English historically hasn’t been a major that diverse or marginalized students choose. English is stigmatized as a useless degree, so when first-generation college students get in, or students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, they feel pressure to major in something “useful.” When you don’t have a lot of diverse English majors, you have even fewer diverse English grads, and even fewer diverse English faculty on the job market. Often departments want to be more diverse, but they’re fighting a systemic problem that starts in grade schools when the achievement gap prevents later college retention for diverse populations.

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          1. So well said. My English department was hardly diverse at all, despite what I feel was a pretty diverse overall student population. Many of my fellow English majors were studying to become teachers but a lot of us were in it for the love of language and reading as well as analysis. Seems like we’re fighting an uphill battle on multiple ends with this.

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            1. Yeah, it’s a systemic issue. I know that people in academia are aware of the issues attracting diverse English majors, but so often those issues are starting long before students enter college. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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          2. This is a really interesting point as well. However, I think calling English a degree marginalized students don’t tend to choose depends on what you’re seeing marginalized as. It’s true that, for example, not a lot of international students choose English, but it’s a degree with a lot of LGBT+ students. I think at my university in particular there are so, so many English students who identify as LGBT+. Of course the point you’re making is still valid, and I can see how departments have a difficult time trying to be more diverse.

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            1. That’s true. Specifically I was thinking about those types of students whose socio-economic backgrounds would discourage them from pursuing a humanities degree (and in the U.S. lower socio-economic backgrounds are unfortunately often associated with race due to the way we’ve set up our power structures). But a lot of LGBT+ individuals do seem to major in English in the U.S., though that’s anecdotal evidence. I haven’t seen any statistics about what the actual numbers are.

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              1. Yeah, I think disadvantaged backgrounds are usually associated with ethnic minorities, which is racist in so many ways, but unfortunately it’s often an accurate assumption. LGBT+ students existing in great numbers in English degrees is definitely just an observation haha, it would be cool to have actual stats tho! ๐Ÿ˜ƒ

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    2. What a great comment! Thank you so much for reading and leaving such a long response!
      I’m glad you agree and fall in the middle of the argument as well. And we do read outside of the basic canon but it’s still mainly straight-white-male, so getting the opportunity to do a whole module that you can identify with more is really awesome. ๐Ÿ˜ƒ

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  2. I guess I’m wondering about how this would look practically speaking if a school were to implement it. Usually students sign up for courses online and the computer just accepts the first sign-ups. Would students be willing to self-identify in a registration database and have that information about their race, gender identity, disabilities, etc. collected somewhere and used to assign them to courses? Would this be uncomfortable? Would it be fair to ask a student to potentially out themselves through the database so that they’d be guaranteed a slot in a course? Would this be ethical and would it raise unforeseen problems?

    Also, some people don’t appreciate the assumption that because they are, say, Chinese or Chinese-American, that they want to study or specialize in that type of literature. They might very well want to study Victorian literature or enthuse about Dante all day. So in implementing a policy that prioritizes what people can sign up for based on their race/cultural background/gender identity/etc. you’d have to be careful that students aren’t reading the policy as an assumption that all Black students want to/must/are going to study Black literature, which is just another way of suggesting that Black students are a monolithic group who all share the same thoughts and experiences, which is not the case.

    And, then of course, you’re raising other questions. For instance, if you have a first-generation college student who comes from a disadvantaged socio-economic background and is Black but wants to study Shakespeare and not take the African-American course, should that student then have the ability to choose their courses first based on the fact that they are struggling against odds their more privileged peers are not? Would giving them first choice on Shakespeare (or any other course of their choice) help with the retention rates of students from under-privileged backgrounds? Or does it really not matter and they can just take whatever courses are available like everyone else, and maybe be surprised or experience some personal growth by ending up in a Whitman course they thought they’d hate but ended up loving?

    I’ll also note that some students are very uncomfortable taking a course that reflects their identity because they don’t want to be perceived, for example, as the “Black voice” or the “Black authority” on Black literature because they are the only Black student in the room. So while it is valuable to hear from these voices, we also have to be careful not to make them feel pressured to be representative of an entire group.

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    1. I love your comment! Thank you so much. ๐Ÿ˜ƒ
      To be fair, in the UK students always state their sexuality, gender identity, ethnicity, etc. when they sign up for university. That information gets stored in the system, so it could technically be used to put students into courses.
      Your point that not all people want to study things that represent them is of course perfectly valid, and I hadn’t considered it, simply because I love studying LGBT+ texts and exploring my own identity. I think you’re right in saying that a policy like that might be understood as suggesting that all people of that minority group share the same interests. It’s a really good point. โ˜บ
      Your point about giving priority to under-privileged students is also really good, and it ties in with what I said about knowing where to draw the line. Who gets what privilege and where does it stop? I find this really interesting, and your example is really good, so again thank you!
      Hmmm, wouldn’t you say that if minority students feel pressured to be representative of an entire group, prioritising them would take away from that pressure by making sure the module has more students from that group? I can see what you’re saying, and I agree that you should never pressure students to be “the voice”, but I think by ensuring that all the students who identify with what is studied have the possibility to actually study it, you will have more people who can be representative of that identity. โ˜บ

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      1. I think in the U.S. colleges do ask for such demographic information, but it tends to be voluntary. Plus I’m not sure if they associate the data with specific students or if it just gets tabulated somewhere so the college can see what their statistics look like. Perhaps someone else is more knowledgeable than I and can explain the mysteries of the application process. ๐Ÿ˜‰

        I think that allowing more marginalized students into courses would lower the pressure of feeling the need to be representative, or the pressure of realizing that others perceive the student as representative. However, in the U.S. at least it’s not very common for English departments to be diverse because English degrees are seen as useless and marginalized students who make it to college often feel pressured to use their degree to land a well-paying job. So they’re pushed into STEM fields by family or community concerns, in many cases. I attended a school that had a sizable population of diverse students specifically because they decided to admit more minority students and make education more equitable. And yet there was only one Black student majoring in English while I was there. You can’t fill upper-level English courses with diverse students if those students aren’t available in the first place.

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        1. Ah, that’s true, I don’t actually know if the information is associated with the student! I would like to find out more about that process. โ˜บ
          I replied to your point about English not being a degree chosen by marginalized students on another comment of yours, so I won’t repeat myself, but I can definitely see how English being seen as a useless degree is a big issue in this case.

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  3. I think a possible solution that can skirt all these issues is just to offer a second section of the course. If 300 people want to sign up and can’t, they should just offer more opportunities to take the course instead of going through gymnastics to determine who has more of a right to take the course.

    I think you raise the point here that a lot of schools do registration on seniority anyway; a third year will have a better chance to take the course than a first-year. But as long as they offer the course every year, hopefully most people who want to take it will be able to eventually, even if they have to wait until they have more seniority.

    I may be thinking of American schools, but giving priority to students of different backgrounds is asking for a lawsuit, and I actually think the school would lose and be told by the government they legally cannot do registration times this way.

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    1. Ah, I forgot how different courses are in the US haha! It’s not that a third-year has more of a chance, a first-year is not allowed to take a third-year module at all. That’s just how uni works in England, you take third-year modules when you’re a third-year student. ๐Ÿ˜ƒ
      Yes, I can definitely see how that could raise some legal issues, and I don’t think these are necessarily changes that need to be made. I do think it’s an interesting issue to consider tho. โ˜บ

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  4. This is a really interesting topic and even though I’m from the US and have a different education system, it’s still something that has kind of come up for me too. For me, it was less about marginalized identities and more about being a psychology major and competing with people from other programs who wanted to take certain psych courses for their general education requirements or as an elective. There were so many times where I wasn’t able to get into the psych courses I wanted to take because other people were able to get to them first and, based on my experience in other psych courses, I know for a fact a lot of those students weren’t psych majors. I can only imagine how much more frustrating this would be if you’re trying to get into a certain course so that you can see yourself represented and learn about your history but other people were getting to those seats first. I don’t know if I necessarily think that marginalized people should have prioritized access to those classes (even practically – just trying to implement that would be really difficult), but I definitely think schools should try and help make sure that students who really want to take those courses because of their desire to learn about people from the same background as them are able to get into them.

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    1. Ah no, that sucks! Fortunately in England people who are doing what in the US you would call a certain major get priority in getting into modules that belong to that major. So if someone who is not doing literature wants to do a literature module, they would only get in once all actual literature students have a place. ๐Ÿ˜Š
      I think your approach there is really good. Schools should definitely listen to their students and make sure they let students who are passionate do those modules. x

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  5. Good article! I kinda jumped a little when I read ” Whatโ€™s the point of studying queer literature if the people who end up writing essays about it are all non-LGBT+?” but then later on you basically said what I was going to say about it (that everyone has the right to study something and that it’s good for non-LGBT people to learn more about things).
    I feel that the main point of this article was to say “I’m afraid I won’t get the modules I want to do”. I totally understand. That’s also why now professors as well as students working for UEA aren’t really supposed to talk about specific modules or at least shouldn’t say “This module will definitely be there” because they might not be etc etc. I wanted to do Queer Lit and Theory and didn’t get it unfortunately but got to do other modules I really wanted to do. I also discovered things I didn’t know I would enjoy. There are so many modules available anyway, it is frustrating but we cannot study literally every module we want ( ๐Ÿ˜ฆ ). A good thing to do however is to ask people who are done module you were interested in to give you the reading lists for instance.
    Anyway, I understand where you were coming from and hope that you get the modules you want in second and third years. I found second year incredibly exciting and muuuuuch better than the first one in terms of modules and everything course-related. But third year is even better in my opinion!

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    1. Ahh thank you so much for the long comment, Anne-Sophie! Haha I was being a bit extreme there, but I made sure to state the opposite later on to show both sides of the issue. ๐Ÿ˜
      I knooow, the third-year modules are amazing! Can’t wait to study them! ๐Ÿ˜
      Yeah, I think first-year modules are a bit meh because they just give you the basics. I hope year 2 will be amazing! ๐Ÿ˜Š

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      1. Haha well thanks for reading this very long comment!
        Yes! I thought first year was good for me but as soon as I started second year, and especially in the second semester, I realised how basic first year had been. Still, it was important and I learnt a lot. Any ideas which modules you’ll pick for second year?

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        1. Yeah I’ve chosen my modules! I want to do Contemporary Fiction, Eighteenth-Century Writing, Seventeenth-Century Writing, Empire and After: Globalizing English, Publishing, and Reading and Writing in Elizabethan England. Most of these are just because of the pre-1789 requirement, which I want to get out of the way in second year so I can do all the awesome stuff in third year! ๐Ÿ˜›

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              1. We did: The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Hawthorne and Child, Harvest, Pond, NW, Remainder (amazing amazing amazing), There But For The, Worthless Men… There might have been a few other ones that I can’t remember right now. The reading list changes slightly every year because they only do novel that came out in the last 10 years. It was a great module, the lecturers were good and my seminar leaders was awesome (Clare Connors). It was so interesting to do something that’s usually heavily questioned (is it literature? What is worth studying?) and also a bit weird because there is no (or almost no) criticism written about it! It wasn’t a problem though, I think it gave us all so much more freedom ๐Ÿ™‚
                Anyway, you’ll enjoy it!

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