This is part of an on-going series.
In 2012, a small department in the College of Arts and Sciences was born.
In six short years, it not only increased 80 percent—from five professors to nine—it’s been dubbed “the most diverse philosophy department in the nation.”
A speaker from the University of California at Berkeley made that statement two years ago, when addressing philosophy students at Georgia College.
“Our philosophy program was pretty unique in that we made sure to search for a position in non-Western philosophy, which—to be doing that in 2008—was considered radical,” said Dr. Sunita Manian, chair of philosophy, religion and liberal studies.
“Our inclusiveness isn’t an accident. This is a plan,” Manian said. “At every stage, we ask: How can we do better?”
Dr. Veronica Womack, chief diversity officer in the Office of Inclusive Excellence, applauds Manian’s methodology.
“Sunita has been very strategic and intentional about her approach to diversity and inclusion in her department,” Womack said. “She went and found the best and the brightest, but she also brought in people who could diversify the curriculum and classroom.”
“That’s a very good department in terms of highlighting diversity,” she said. “They managed to bring in folks from all over.”
In an era when most philosophy departments nationwide still teach only Greek or Western thought—the department of philosophy, religion and liberal studies at Georgia College boldly expanded to embrace diverse philosophical traditions within the United States and globally. The department has grown to include African-American philosophy, philosophy of race, East Asian philosophies, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Christian thought, animal ethics, Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam.
This diversity of curriculum had another, unexpected impact.
Interest in the major increased by 275 percent—from 24 students to 90 in six years.
“Providing this very diverse curriculum has made it something more students are excited about,” Manian said. “We did it, because it’s the right thing to do. But it has also helped our department grow.”
Many students enter Georgia College without much exposure to differing viewpoints. But Manian hopes they leave understanding that knowledge comes from many sources—not only from those who look like us.
“It’s intrinsically important for us to get a diverse perspective on things and to be more inclusive in our way of thinking. It gets us away from thinking the only real thought happened in the West,” Manian said.
“And there’s a second aspect to this too,” she added, “It prepares our students for the world in the 21st century. It makes them more employable. It’s vital to their success in life.”
Dr. Huaiyu Wang is an associate professor of philosophy. Inspired by his colleague, Isadora Mosch, Wang starts all class sessions with a 3-minute meditation. In good weather, he can also be seen playing guitar on Front Campus for his students. This novelty in teaching style is as important as the Asian concepts Wang reveals.
Having an international professor helps international students too. It’s natural for them to gravitate to peers and professors like them, Wang said. Asian students from many different majors take his courses.
“Students want to see people who look like them,” Wang said. “When applying for graduate school in America, I was always checking to see whether they had Asian faculty and students. That mattered to me as a student.”
Most students enter his classes with a strong Christian background. Wang exposes them to various philosophies and religions like Daoism, Buddhism and American pragmatism, while supplementing Western philosophy with thought from Indian thinker Mahatma Gandhi and the Chinese teacher, Confucius.
“Students have become more and more open-minded in the process,” he said. “I try not to impose doctrine but let students find their own spontaneous response to ideas from other cultures.”
This exposure is important. It may not change the way students think—but Wang said that’s not the goal. His job is to plant seeds.
Other Georgia College departments are also intentionally diversifying their curriculum and, by doing so, attracting a more diverse faculty.
One example is the department of art. Associate Professor TeaYoun Kim-Kassor uses her Asian heritage to give sculpture and 3D printing students a global perspective. She melds together eastern and western styles, as well as modernity and centuries-old traditions. Professor Valerie Aranda uses “cross-cultural collaborations” in her painting classes, mixing Hispanic, Latinx and Anglo-European American aesthetics, materials and methods.
“The positive impact of this broadening approach to the education experience of our students cannot be overstated,” said Art Chair William Fisher.
“It’s critical in defining the highly-distinctive nature of our department,” Fisher said, “and it exemplifies the best research we aspire to as educators—crossing boundaries between scholarship, service and teaching for the personal development and great benefit of our student body.”
This benefit might best be illustrated by a story Manian tells.
One of her students came back to see Manian, many years after taking her class. The man said he hadn’t agreed with her much as a student. As the years progressed, however, he developed a better understanding of himself, due to her influence.
“We don’t know how many students undergo a change after these ideas percolate,” Manian said. “I think our job is to open up the world. What they do with it is up to them.”