Whitewashed foundation

By Sunjay MathuriaStaff Contributor

The morning of the lecture about the Souls of Black Folk, Monica Mutale knew she was going to have a weird day.
W.E.B. DuBois’ book is the focus of the only lecture on an African-American text in the Foundation Year Program, the curriculum every first-year University of King’s College student follows.
“I was the only black person in my tutorial, so I knew it was going to be uncomfortable,” she says.
And it was.
“I kept getting called out to comment,” Mutale says. “I’m usually very quiet, so normally I don’t contribute in tutorial.”
“It’s not surprising, but it does eventually get to you,” admits Mutale, who is now a second-year journalism student.
The singling out of students of colour at King’s, and in the Foundation Year Program (FYP) in particular, happens for a simple reason. This year, the number of minority FYP students could be counted on one hand.
FYP was introduced in 1972 and has since become nationally renowned. What sets FYP apart from any other first-year of undergraduate university in Canada is that it is a survey of Western philosophy and thought spanning from ancient civilizations to the contemporary world.
While FYP dabbles a bit in Islamic history and Confucius, many perspectives are still overlooked in the program’s survey of great books.
And FYP co-ordinator Daniel Brandes realizes this can be a problem.
“We have to be attentive to the composition of the curriculum and the composition of FYP, and I think we’ve tried to respond to this concern over the past five to 10 years,” he says.
But this attention has not produced drastic changes. The number of black writers on the reading list fluctuates each year. Last year, there was just one.
Part of the explanation for the racial make-up of FYP students is their shared backgrounds.
“Students come here by word of mouth. We have a lot of students from Toronto who come from privileged backgrounds, from private schools,” says Dorota Glowacka, a contemporary studies professor at King’s.
But she says there have been recent efforts to make King’s more attractive to students of different backgrounds.
“We really advertise it far and wide,” she says. “Despite these efforts, I’m not sure we have made great strides.”
Glowacka also says the King’s Racial Equity Committee used to be active, but over the years, has become immobile.
“Somehow issues of racial equity have always been put on the backburner. I don’t think we’re equipped at the moment to deal with these issues,” she says.
But Glowacka thinks that revisions to the FYP curriculum would be a part of the solution. She says this might even encourage more students of different backgrounds to take FYP.
“I don’t think you can separate the curriculum from issues of equity and how our students fare on an everyday basis, so it has to be really a part of the curriculum and a part of what people talk about in regards to academic texts,” she says.
Glowacka herself will be doing a lecture series at King’s next year on the Conception of Race in Philosophy, Literature, and Art.
Eluned Jones, the only black FYP instructor at King’s, has also pointed out curriculum deficiencies in area of race in the past and has tried to initiate some change.
But she soon realized she could not do it alone.
“It’s not my burden to carry. I can’t work on diversity by myself,” she says.
Mutale thinks changes to the FYP curriculum could benefit all King’s students.
She says representing different perspectives in the curriculum could help broaden everyone’s understandings of other cultures.
“By this point, you should be able to deal with people of all cultures. University should prepare you for the world. You’re supposed to be experiencing the whole world,” Mutale says.
The demographics of not only Halifax, but also its universities, have drastically changed over the past 30 years. By 2008, 7.5 per cent of Halifax’s population identified themselves as belonging to a visible minority.
Mutale says once these FYP students begin to see more of themselves reflected in the program, they may begin to feel more comfortable.
She says the school definitely needs to take action to revise the curriculum.
“They don’t realize how difficult it is for students to be sitting there and thinking, ‘Here I am at this great university, great history, world renowned, and I don’t think I belong here and I don’t think you really want me here.’ And for a school that’s so worried about their image, I guess they don’t realize that’s what they’re actually saying,” says Mutale.

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