By Alviya Siddiqui
Some students don’t have to think about what the faces of their faculty look like, but Black students at Ryerson say more needs to be done to address the lack of diversity across departments.
In an article published by Sage Journal, an increase in representation in the classroom is associated with the positive scholarship and growth of marginalized students.
For Black students like Nikesha Sampson, a second-year in global management studies, a lack of diversity within the classroom can create feelings of isolation and an unwelcoming atmosphere.
“That lack of representation makes it feel like you’re an alien in your class [when] you’re the only Black person,” said Sampson.
Throughout Sampson’s education, she said she’s always felt like the “odd Black girl in the room.”
When she started at Ryerson, Sampson sought other means to fit in such as joining the Ryerson Black Business Students Association to connect with other Black students. Before joining that club, she said she had never seen even 30 Black students in the same room in any of her classes.
“It’s important for [Black, Indigenous and students of colour] to see academic figures who not only look like them but who’ve had a similar life experience journey that they’ve got”
During her studies, Sampson said the curriculum and course material in her first-year art history class was missing perspectives from marginalized voices.
“A lot of the content that we went over was mostly European,” she said. “There’s so much more that we could touch base on in the class. One would think that the content of courses would evolve, but it hasn’t.”
According to an article published by CBC, universities across the country—including Ryerson—are trying to fill the “longtime curriculum gap at Canadian universities” by introducing minors in Black studies.
In 2018, York University introduced a Black Canadian Studies Certificate program that puts an emphasis on Black humanities disciplines, including literature, art and culture.
Dalhousie University also started offering a minor in Black and African Diaspora Studies in 2016. The four-year Black and African Diaspora Studies program covers topics like culture and sociology of Black people in Canada and the African diaspora.
But some students say the attempt to change course material to incorporate diverse perspectives isn’t enough to fully address the lack of representation in the classroom.
Last year, a lack of supports for marginalized students and acts of discrimination prompted students from the School of Journalism at Ryerson to publish an open letter calling for a more diverse faculty that could relate to the department’s population of racialized students.
On Jan. 12, the School of Journalism announced the addition of two new permanent Black faculty members, Eternity Martis and Shari Okeke. Ryerson also announced a new Black studies minor offered by the Faculty of Art with courses across 13 departments, starting in fall 2022 semester.
“We would like to see an actual change in representation.”
Similar programs are in the process of establishment across various post-secondary institutions across the country.
“I’ve heard from a lot of my own students that they feel really disillusioned with the industry. They don’t see themselves represented,” said Martis in an interview with the School of Journalism. “So I’m hoping that by coming in, I can show them those different avenues, I can use my connections and use my network to help them get a foot in the industry.”
She added that she plans on continuing beyond her JRN 319 Reporting on Race: Black Communities and the Media course that she’s been teaching since 2020 to apply an “anti-oppressive lens to all the courses I’ll be teaching or consulting on.”
“It’s very exciting that they are having more teachers of colour,” said Sampson. “When you’re a Black student and you see a Black teacher, that’s going to be the person that you want to go to to ask your questions more so than anyone else, just because they’re going to understand your experience.”
Increasing representation of Black professors can allow students to thrive in academia and have a positive impact on their education according to Jerome Cranston, the dean and professor of the Faculty of Education at the University of Regina.
“It’s important for [Black, Indigenous and students of colour] to see academic figures who not only look like them but who’ve had a similar life experience journey that they’ve got,” said Cranston.
Cranston also reiterated the importance for white students to see Indigenous and racialized professors. He said the absence of the talent and expertise Indigenous and racialized scholars bring to education keeps universities “blind” to the possibilities that come with having a diverse faculty.
According to a 2016 study published by the American Journal of Educational Research, having a diverse faculty “increases the production of new knowledge in a multicultural perspective.” This builds a more nuanced understanding of subjects by avoiding negative stereotypes, contributing to a better learning environment.
However, second-year biomedical engineering student Mariam Samson said that just focusing on hiring diverse faculty does not get rid of the internal biases of the current faculty.
She further emphasized the importance of “training the current faculty members to acknowledge internal biases when doing their job to be more exposed to what is happening and not just turn a blind eye.”
As a Black student, Samson often desires to be in a space where she can feel included, regardless of who she is. She does not want to feel like “oil and water,” she said.
When it comes to the representation of Black professors at Canadian universities, not much has changed over the past decade.
According to a report by the Canadian Association of University Teachers, Black instructors made up only 1.8 per cent of those in the classroom in 2006; a decade later in 2016, only 2 per cent of university teachers were Black.
In considering why some universities, such as Ryerson, are slow to make diverse hiring candidates a priority, Cranston said they have not changed the way they approach hiring. “The current process is similar to looking at people’s qualifications and their experience in a way that existed 10, 30 and 50 years ago.”
Cranston said that in some ways, a few universities are still applying the notions, like traditional scholarships, merits and work experience, that were predominantly afforded to white people and not to Indigenous and racialized people.
With an updated approach that prioritizes diverse perspectives and achievements, Cranston said racialized students would be able to see there are people like them that are successful and can relate to their experiences.
Nonetheless, the addition of faculty members of colour at Ryerson is “a step in the right direction” for Samson. She said she hopes classrooms in the future will enhance diversity and representation without always making everything just “a photo opportunity.”
“We would like to see an actual change in representation.”