Inside Dish: Nancy Langston on Diversity and Inclusivity in Academic Syllabi

This is the first post in a new interview series here on EHN. In it, scholars in environmental history share their powerful, honest #insidedish on representation, engagement, and community in academia in general and the field in particular. In this interview, our founding editor Elizabeth Hameeteman speaks with Nancy Langston, Distinguished Professor of Environmental History at Michigan Technological University and one of the initiators of The Syllabus Project.

While doing research at her Lake Superior field site last summer, Nancy Langston sat down for a phone call with me. It was only recently that I had initiated Environmental History Now, and wanted to talk to her about awareness, inclusivity, and actual solutions relating to the lack of diversity in academia. Even though these issues are not actually new ones, they did come to fore in a major way last year.

Langston shared that “a lot of us had been talking about a lack of diversity in the field for quite a while—in the field of environmental history, larger history, and academia in general.” Responding to why these debates emerged at this particular time, she elucidated the way the larger #MeToo Movement gave “enough energy that people were able to just start saying: this isn’t harassment, but it’s a different kind of way of being made invisible.” And moreover, she said, the feeling among historians was, “Let’s just keep bringing it up.”

Around the same time that #WomenAlsoKnowHistory gained momentum, a discussion had emerged on the Women’s Environmental History Network’s (WEHN) forum. While revising her environmental history syllabus, one professor had realized that her included works were nearly “all white men.” Despite being a feminist, activist, and involved in diversity for a long time, she was “doing it too.”

After this WEHN discussion, Dolly Jørgensen provoked a Twitter debate—“we’ll call it a lively conversation,” Langston said—after one young professor asked #twitterstorians for ideas on what kind of works to include for his new environmental history class. At some point, Jørgensen noted the fact that dozens of the initial suggestions were white men. Even though these suggestions were great, “literally no women” were mentioned—and when called on this, “some people got very defensive.”

These online debates, Langston and others started talking about the structural reasons that explain “why there’s so little diversity in many of our syllabi”. Pulling together suggestions from diverse scholars, they came up with what is now The Syllabus Project to provoke actual change instead of letting things just fizzle out like it often does. The project is a collaborative Zotero library that lets anyone collect, organize, cite, and share environmental history sources by diverse scholars. The collection is tagged, to make it easy to find suggestions for syllabi across various fields, themes, and topics. The group library now contains over 500 items, and anyone is welcome to add to the collection or use it to build their own syllabi.

The Syllabus Project really was a product of these debates in academia in general and in the environmental history field in particular. “So many of my best friends, I see their syllabus and there is not a single woman or person of color on it,” Langston shared. “I think of them in person as really committed to greater diversity, but there’s just a blindness.” The project aims to overcome this blindness, making it easier to include diverse works by diverse scholars.

I suggested to Langston that such issues are also mostly about creating an overall awareness, about people becoming more conscious of what they put in their syllabi. I know for myself that after checking one of my comps lists, I was shocked to realize that were only two books by female historians on it. I startled myself. Langston concurred that such a lack of awareness plays a huge part. “When it comes time to say what’s important, women often get excluded from standard categories of importance,” she explained. This means that “maybe you need to redefine what you think is important. If importance equals works by men, no wonder only men are in those categories.” Even so, this is just one of the reasons. “It just puzzled me,” she goes on, “even men that were super aware to the point they had edited and promoted women, still didn’t include any of them.”

This led me to think that perhaps many historians just assign books from the standard canon out of habit. Certain books have been important in the environmental history field for so many years, there being an inherent belief that those works need be included. But then a lot of those books are written by white men, so where does that leave us? In addition to issues involving time constraints, Langston explains that it also relates to not pushing against the grain. “When you go online and find fifty environmental history syllabi, all with the same important works in the same canon,” she says, “you think, well, I can’t challenge that canon.”

“Canons emerge unintentionally but then they get the force of a 10,000-pound gorilla—and it’s hard to push the gorilla aside for your own vision.”

The reality is that most academics have the freedom to pull together whatever they like. “We actually have more freedom I think than we realize,” Langston said. “If you can defend why you left one standard scholar out and put another scholar in your syllabus,” you will rarely be challenged. But creating new syllabi takes time, and this means that “when we face a time crunch before the beginning of a semester, we often fall back on what works.”

Even though “we started this to encourage greater diversity and in gender,” Langston explained, “very quickly we noted racial diversity issues as well.” In fact, Langston found she constantly has to adapt her own syllabi too. “I work on Indigenous issues in my own research,” she noted, “but initially I had only a couple of pages here and there by Indigenous scholars.” After recognizing this absence, she redesigned her environmental history syllabus to include far more scholars of color. Yet, Langston realized that she faced the same challenges others might have. Big plans, but little time, so she needed to overcome the temptation to simply teach words she had long taught.

“I felt I didn’t have time—I have grants to get in, papers to write, students to advise. But I had to make myself find the time, because I can’t urge my colleagues to address diversity in their syllabi if I don’t do it.”

Langston concludes, “the more syllabi I look at, the more I realize that are lots of different ways to teach these fields and we don’t have to do just one size fits all.” Moreover, “every time I see a colleague’s innovative syllabus with new scholarship, the easier it is for me to envision how to change my own syllabus.”

Langston invites fellow environmental historians to join a roundtable discussion on diversifying syllabi in general, and The Syllabus Project in particular, at the upcoming American Society for Environmental History conference in Columbus, OH. Sarah Elkind, David Fouser, Mary Mendoza, Sara Pritchard, Brinda Sarathy, Anna Zeide, and, of course, Langston herself are set to discuss the structural reasons that have led many historians to design syllabi lacking diversity. After exploring the collaborative Zotero library, they will lead—what promises to be—a lively discussion with the audience on best practices and continuing challenges.