“How many black authors do I need?”

The title of this blog post is a reference to Mario Small’s oft-cited paper, “How Many Cases Do I Need?”, on sampling in qualitative research. His title, I think, is a play on the fact that most qualitative researchers don’t actually want to think about sampling in qualitative research. As such, we usually respond in two ways: either we ignore it entirely, or we try to figure out what the absolute minimum number of cases is to be credible.

As I put together my syllabus for this summer—a really unexpectedly painful task of picking the 25 articles that encapsulate all that medical sociology has to offer—I have been distinctly trying not to approach the question of diversity among the assigned readings in either of these fashions. And it’s revealing—about both me, and the discipline I’m part of—that it’s so hard not to operationalize this complicated process as, “How many black authors do I need?”

I loved* the year-long course on social theory that I TAed for this year. But it was clear that, by the time we had made our way through the “canon” and arrived at feminism (which we covered in four weeks, which is probably much more than accorded in many theory classes), the students were pretty sick of white men. And when we finished with Patricia Hill Collins, they had the theoretical ammunition to convincingly articulate why: because “outsider knowledge” is powerful, because lived experience is important, because sociology’s long-ignored exclusions render us intellectually impoverished and morally hypocritical.

As Collins points out, some people get this intuitively; others of us have to listen and learn. It’s taken me a while to get beyond the abstract awareness that “’diverse’ authors = good” to really get the sense of injury some students feel at the lack of representativeness of the scholars we teach, and the barriers to their learning that can pose. Now that I’m teaching my own course—with virtually no oversight as to course content—I realized that, if I took this stuff seriously, I needed to act on it.

One conclusion I’ve come to is that we need to get beyond talking about what we should “add” and think about what we need to “remove.” DuBois is always going to get cheated so long as we think our students absolutely need to know Marx, Weber, and Durkheim in painstaking detail before we get to him. When I first put together my health and medicine syllabus—with Foucault, and Parsons,** and Zola, and Starr—I quickly realized that, even if I assigned more “contemporary”*** readings, we would never get to them, because we would spent all our time trying to figure out what the fuck Foucault is getting at with the “medical gaze.”

And so I kicked a lot of them out. Most of my undergraduates aren’t going to graduate school, and if they do, they’ll take a graduate-level class. They don’t need to read something that’s crappily written just because I had to. And the reality is, there is so much written on everything that there almost always exists someone who has developed, critiqued, and surpassed whatever white man’s ideas you think are essential. Out with Foucault, in with Dorothy Roberts.

Finding these authors, though, was work—more than probably it should have been. In part, it’s because white people have colonized most topics anyway, so if I want to do something on “public health in Africa”—which is a totally woke topic!—most of the authors that come up first on google scholar are still white. But the main problem is that it was hard to be woke with my syllabus because I wasn’t woke with my qualifying exams and I’m not woke with my citations in my own work. I actually think that my blinds spots were even more striking when I thought about including Latinx, Asian, or indigenous authors.

I am pretty happy with my final syllabus—no, I didn’t count the number of authors of color, and I can’t say whether it was as many as I “need”—but I’m amazed that, preparing to teach, there is so much for me to un-learn.

* As in, my favorite experience in grad school.

** No, I was never actually going to teach Parsons.

*** Coded for race in much the same way as “urban” is.

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