Diversity and Inclusiveness On Diversifying the Classroom from Within: An Interview with Perry Zurn

On Diversifying the Classroom from Within: An Interview with Perry Zurn

Perry Zurn is Assistant Professor of philosophy at American University. He researches broadly in the fields of political philosophy, gender theory, and applied ethics, and his work contributes specifically to critical prison studies and curiosity studies. Zurn has assumed diversity service roles for DePaul University’s McNair Scholars Program, the PIKSI-Rock program, the APA’s Diversity Institute Advisory Panel, and now chairs the APA’s Committee on LGBT People in the Profession.

What are you doing in your classroom to diversify the philosophical canon?

For the most part, discussions about diversifying the philosophy classroom take an additive approach: assign texts written by “diverse practitioners of philosophy, where none were assigned before. While valuable and important, this approach assumes that disruption of the philosophical tradition comes from the outside. But “diverse practitioners” of philosophy exist already within the classroom, in the form of students and faculty with marginalized social identities. So when I hear your question—as an underrepresented philosopher often teaching underrepresented students—I think about those rich forces of diversification. I think about our experiences and our irrepressible efforts to understand them. I think about how much we know and how much we want to know.

First, I think about how much I know. In a bone-deep, marrow’s telling sort of way. Things I know about living in a world with gender inequity and queerphobia. I think of how many things my underrepresented students know about living their marginalized social identities, things they never read in books and no one ever had to tell them. So much knowledge is buried here, carried here, in these bodies of ours, these psyches of ours.

When I say this, I mean that there are things we know without words or language, often below consciousness, things we know in an ineradicable way, a way that cannot be swayed by suggestion or headed off by circumstance. When I think about this kind of knowing, I recall the words of Eli Clare. He speaks of “a knowing that reside[s] in [his] bones,” where “place and community and culture burrow deep,” where the reverberations of “history and identityoften linger, amplified in the body’s bellows and chambers.” We—he says of queer, crip, and trans communities—“store the gawking” and the slurs “in [our] bones, but we can also “transform them [there], create something entirely new in their place.” Whether fueling fury or hope, the truth-contours of a marginalized life are carried within.

Reading canonical texts in the history of philosophy, I will often know immediately that what I know intimately is not honored by their locutions. I know in the way a writer knows when a scene is off. It’s that moment when you recognize a reflection as a distortion, or you see a history erased and its dust commodified. Reading, there are and will be times when my underrepresented students think, “That’s just wrong” or “that’s not quite right” (it misses everything; or it misses something). But they will not always know why, or how to say this, or who to cite for it. Some knowledge is bone deep.

Second, I think about how much I want to know. While some knowledge is bone deep and buried, other sorts of knowledge has to be built, with one’s own hands so to speak. This is the work of training oneself in feminist, queer, and trans analyses, in critical race and decolonial theory, in disability studies and socioeconomics. It is a work of resistance made necessary by the fundamental exclusions and silencing that mark the Western philosophical canon as well as the larger world.

I am lucky to be of a generation where it was possible (although rare) to be trained in race and gender during my graduate education in philosophy. My professors had never taken such classes themselves. I remember them looking at me in awe of my experience, as if to say, ‘You have no idea how lucky you are.’ (I now look at my students in the same way.) Nevertheless, most of my education in decolonial feminism, disability theory, and trans studies came and still comes from outside the classroom: from my peers and my community, conferences and new class preps, social media and the library.

While I can offer a boost to the next generation, my underrepresented students are also already clambering. They are sense-making and world-making with each other and in their communities. They are reaching wide and diving deep to understand the world and their experiences within it. Students are talking to their peers, engaging with faculty and staff, plumbing their social networks outside the academy. From the cafeteria to cafes, across Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, they are culling and crafting new knowledge—knowledge of things the university itself does not yet know.

When I think about how much my students and I know, and how much we don’t know, I think about the curious practices of attention and self-education. The project of diversifying the philosophy classroom goes far beyond adding a new text or exercise to the syllabus. It involves modeling and facilitating a phenomenological attention to marginalized experience. It involves being transparent about my own grappling with things and empowering students to do the same.

The knowledge that is buried here, in this body-mind, in our body-minds, is often only exhumed by careful practices of attention. Such practices include an awareness in and openness to the present, listening to and noticing the contours of experience. It involves a certain mindfulness and a courage to show up to what is happening to you, to those you love, to those you know, and to those you don’t. It requires a phenomenological investment that is neither natural nor easy, especially for marginalized scholars, whose lives and experiences already and so often rebuff them. And it requires a kind of listening to one another, and being with each other, that presupposes purposeful, conscientious commitment to building community in a world that so often isolates and pulls us apart.

But beyond the knowledge that is buried, there is a knowledge yet to be built. Such knowledge is crafted, bravely and generously, through practices of self-education in community. Against the solipsism of Western philosophy, this knowledge ranges widely across philosophical traditions and incorporates other disciplines and fields of inquiry. Against the fear of being misunderstood and unheard, this knowledge is built not by the individual and the young, but across generations and communities. Against the conviction that there is no longer time for wisdom, but that everything must bow to the demands of one’s profession, this knowledge is built in the lulls of life as much as in the clash of activism. And against the presumption that the most radical challenges come from the present—or the new—this knowledge is built from an appreciation of the past as always already borne in the fabric of our days.

In the classroom, these practices of attention and self-education can be engaged by the students themselves, by professors, guest lecturers, and TA’s, as well as by assigned authors—in more ways than I can outline here. Facilitation strategies might include the co-constitution of dialogue space, in-class phenomenological writing, and student-built modules in the syllabus. They would certainly involve the steady invitation—again modeled by the professor—to use the experiences one has had and the resources produced by marginalized knowledge-builders as a touchstone for the evaluation of philosophical texts and the construction of philosophical arguments. If Paulo Freire taught us anything, it is that the philosophy classroom diversifies itself when we—professors and students, as diverse practitioners, co-knowers and co-learners—get honestly curious, sometimes harrowingly curious, about the categorical constraints on marginalized bodies, hegemonic epistemologies, and the call to social justice.


This series of the APA Blog is dedicated to understanding what our fellow philosophers are doing in and out of the classroom to diversify the canon. If you would like to nominate yourself or someone else to write a post for this series, please contact us via the interview nomination form here.

Header Image: Paulo Freire | Wikimedia Commons


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