2.4% is a failing grade!

Today, I want to share a dismal statistic about the Masters of Archival Studies & Masters of Library and Information Science program that I started this fall at UBC. It is a small example of how deeply white supremacy and Eurocentrism are embedded within academia and the archival profession.

So far, of the 83 required readings I’ve had to do for my four introductory courses, only 2 have been written by authors of colour. That’s 2.4%.

I was prompted to investigate this late last night after reading a thread of tweets by Dr. Adrienne Keene (ᏣᎳᎩᎯ ᎠᏰᎵ / Cherokee Nation), who writes the fantastic blog Native Appropriations, and who also shares her thoughts regularly on Twitter about academia, representations of Native peoples, and current events.

Here are the first couple of tweets from the thread:
Tweet: My students in CRT today did an activity where they counted scholars of color on syllabi from other courses, did a % calculation.       I was appalled that there was more than one syllabus reviewed without a SINGLE author/scholar of color. 15 weeks. Not one.      — Dr. Adrienne Keene (@NativeApprops) November 1, 2017
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard such criticism, and a quick Google search shows similar conversations happening regularly at universities in the US and UK over the last few years (here are articles about Berkeley, Yale, and Cambridge). Being a student again gave me a pretty clear opportunity to see how this was playing out in my own classes.

So, I opened up my reading lists and had a look at the authors. I began Googling – admittedly an imprecise method of determining people’s racial identities, but the same method that Dr. Keene’s class used and decent to get a general sense. There were a few people who I could not find any information on, so definitely there are some “unknowns”.

Across my four classes the breakdown looks like this:

  • Diplomatics: No known authors of colour. Almost all of our readings for this class are by one author (our professor), who is a white woman.
  • Arrangement and description: No known authors of colour.
  • Management of current records: No known authors of colour.
  • Archival systems and the profession:
    • 1 article by Eunha Youn, a Korean woman, about Korea’s national archives, during the week that we discussed international archival systems.
    • The Protocols on Native American Archival Materials, which has 18 listed contributors, 15 of whom are Indigenous. We read this along with other ethical codes about archival practice.
    • 1 article by Andrew Flinn, who has an avatar on multiple social media sites (Twitter, Academia) of a black man carrying a briefcase. However, this Youtube video of him suggests he’s an older white British man, but I can’t really know from Googling and this shows how imprecise and deficient this method of determining someone’s racial identity is. This went into the unknown category.

As you can see from this list, the diversity of authors we are reading this semester is pretty freaking dismal.

I do want to note that this was hard information to find. Academic forms of writing (this semester we’ve been reading mostly journal articles, book chapters, and ethical codes) usually include very little information about an author’s social location, identity, background, experience, and worldview. This suggests that these factors do not influence academics’ work, and that ideas have a kind of life of their own, independent from their creators and those creators’ experiences, social location, etcetera.

Additionally, in the past when I have looked up authors I have noticed that it is almost exclusively authors of colour and Indigenous authors who provide information about their race, ethnicity, Nation, community, or other identities that indicate their racialization or Indigeneity. The failure of white authors to do the same posits whiteness as the natural or assumed racial identity, which is majorly problematic. So, in the interests of being transparent for anyone wondering – I’ll be up front that I am white. My ancestors moved to North America as settler colonists from Europe from the 1600s to the 1900s, from England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and Sweden (that I know of, and possibly some other places too).

This lack of information about authors and scholars make it difficult to address questions such as:

  • Is the diversity of the authors we are reading in our classes representative of the diversity of people in our society? Of the communities we we will serve as archivists?
  • Do our professors reflect the diversity in society? (Short answer: no, our four core classes are being taught by 3 white women).
  • Which groups specifically are most over- or under-represented in the collection of professors and authors we are learning from?
  • What steps need to be taken to make our learning environments more diverse and representative of society at large?

Regardless of the limitations of this information, I think it’s abundantly clear that authors and professors of colour are grossly underrepresented in the mandatory core archival classes I’m taking this semester. Now that I have these statistics I am thinking about what to do next. Should I bring this up to my professors? To my classmates? To our student association, who advocates on our behalf and has a say in curriculum consultations? All of the above? I’d appreciate your thoughts!


3 thoughts on “2.4% is a failing grade!

Add yours

  1. Hey Allison.
    All of the above!

    I’m not surprised at the statistics. I stopped doing this a while ago when it got really depressing. For the second half of my undergrad it felt like the only way to enforce more inclusion was to make sure that my peers were succeeding because I knew that they were essentially the next generation of academics. But it’s hard when we began to realize that academia isn’t kind. A lot of my friends have decided not to pursue academia anymore, and it’s heartbreaking to me because I think academia needs them and I know that they have good, important questions…but I wouldn’t encourage them to do something that will turn out to break them down. We read so much in the humanities, and it’s discouraging when you don’t see yourself represented or when you feel that the syllabus is unwilling to let others in.

    This is a long way to say yes I agree with you and thank you. I didn’t/don’t have the guts to speak up (it feels like if no one is saying anything then maybe they don’t care and that I shouldn’t let it bother me too(???)). I’m going to go searching for the MLIS core syllabi…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel ya. I hope it is a conversation that we can have during the curriculum review for the MAS program this spring. I agree that it is easier to do together than alone. Glad to be doing MLIS core with you next semester 🙂


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