Department of Politics and International Relations

Diversifying the curriculum at the DPIR

After the Vice Chancellor’s 2014 Race Summit, the Social Sciences Division asked their Departments whether they would consider embarking on a curriculum diversity initiative. The Department of Politics and International Relations (DPIR) undertook to review the Politics components of the two undergraduate degrees offered by the University: Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE), and History and Politics (HP).

In addition to taking politics as part of their Prelims (first year), PPE and HP students must choose two core politics papers (out of a total of five) in their second year. This forms part of their Second Public Examinations, or Honours Finals. Each core paper in the second year, as well as Prelims, is the responsibility of a panel of faculty members.[1] They decide on the reading list, are in charge of providing lectures, and examining, and meet every term with tutors and lecturers responsible for teaching the paper across the university.

The DPIR is currently engaged in reviewing the five core politics papers, plus the Prelims politics paper. Two workshops have already been convened for each of the papers over Hilary and Trinity 2016. The workshops were made up of panel members (which include post-doctoral students and graduates who tutor the paper), as well as a number of current undergraduate and graduate students who had recently taken the course. A video series capturing the experiences and reflections of workshop participants is also currently being produced. Dr Karma Nabulsi, Director of Undergraduate Studies at the DPIR and Tutor in Politics at St. Edmund Hall, explains more.


© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Interview with Dr Karma Nabulsi

1. What was the motivation to embark on a review of the curriculum?

The curriculum review came about as a result of the conjunction of several forces.

First, there are a lot of faculty who work on these things every day, but it is always welcome when they get some kind of institutional gesture that it will be treated seriously. So after the Race Summit, and the Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Initiative, an email came through asking whether people were interested in undertaking a review of the curriculum for diversity issues, and that such a review would be welcome. It is both encouraging and necessary to get a green light from above, so academics in the department working on change know that they have support from the top of the structure, and the changes will be welcomed. This is especially so when making the decision to engage in something as important as instituting new practices in a very old institution with extensive traditions, where faculty have very little time – we’re hard pressed to do additional things, as much as we would like to.

The second important factor is that faculty in the DPIR were already initiating this kind of change. We have an incredibly supportive Head of Department, Liz Frazer. In addition, most of the students and faculty cared deeply about these issues. So the idea of a curriculum review was raised in an arena where there was an appreciation of the need to engage in diversity and equality issues.

Finally, because I happened to be Director of Undergraduate Studies, I was fortunate to be in a position where I could do something about this and push things along.

 2. How did you go about it in terms of discussions, procedures, and proposals? 

Curriculum review in a university that emphasizes faculty self-governance 

A critical part of the review process was to ensure the decision about whether to undertake a curriculum review was in the hands of the various panels. We made a small number of recommendations on how to convene the working parties, but the choice whether to engage and the format of the workshop was theirs. Instead of dictating from above what they ought to do, we made sure they could run it any which way they thought most effective, because of course it is their reading list. Bottom-up is the only successful way such a substantial process like a curriculum review can work – in Oxford in particular.

The panels were all at different stages of review of their reading list, so they all took this as an opportunity, in different ways. For example, the IR panel had just recently revised the reading list, and they had included a lot more work from other regions of the world. It wasn’t difficult, therefore, for them to continue on this path. Prelims had been completely revised just over a year ago, so it was a continuation of a process, but a couple of other papers had not updated their reading lists for a while, or only incrementally.

Encouraging faculty engagement

One thing we did to facilitate this was to give the workshops a number of standards and criteria which set out the ways in which the principle of diversity could be applied to various aspects of their course. In addition to race and ethnicity, we envisioned diversity to encompass gender, geographic scope, authors, subject matter, and approaches.

It is particularly important to be supportive of colleagues, as so many of them were already mindful of these issues. It was simply a matter of encouraging them, and highlighting where many of them are revising lists already: an official curriculum review is just a matter of institutionalizing current best practices and engaging in systematic updating, and being made aware and prompted by the criteria. A critical part of the success here is framing a curriculum review in positive terms, because in the abstract it can seem like quite an intimidating or daunting undertaking.

The most effective way we found to facilitate the workshops was to provide additional material from other experiences and best practice at other world class universities, as well as brief the members on what the other working groups were doing, in order to generate further discussion, creative ideas, cross-pollination between panels, and reflection. Each of the workshop chairs wrote a progress report and this was turned into an incredibly helpful briefing that was circulated to other panels. The second time the workshops were convened, some time was set aside at the start to update on what other panel groups were doing. This not only gave people ideas but made the entire experience more concrete and tangible, and inspired focus on the matter at hand.

We ended up having a huge success with curriculum diversity in the Politics core papers, as all of them are undertaking substantial review, with immediate changes effected in terms of topics and readings, and plans for more medium term changes over the coming year.

 3. How did you and others engage with students and include them in the process?

Without question it is essential that students are included in the process. Many of the most interesting recommendations came from students. For when lecturers and tutors see how passionate and interested students are in these changes, and are actively seeking them out, as well as how much reading they have done, it creates a very interesting and positive atmosphere, and lifts the tone immediately. This atmosphere is absolutely key for the open intellectual process required of diversity and equality discussions.

Both graduates and undergraduates participated in the five panel’s working groups. One option we were keen on developing at the DPIR is a formal, elected post for a student officer (like at OUSU), open to postgraduates and people who had just finished their undergraduate degree to be Equalities and Diversity Officer for the students, but also to liaise with the faculty, convene workshops, reading groups and convene necessary workshops to keep the process active, and the students supported in this work. We can envision this  as a part time role, or it might be supported through a bursary of some kind, and we are looking at the ways this type of initiative can be more grounded, and instituted over the coming period.

This elected student would be responsible for seeing through diversity- and equality-related changes that are happening at the Department level, and provide a fulcrum for the forums where students need to discuss these issues, and serve as a conduit between them and busy faculty members.


© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 4. What problems or challenges did you encounter along the way, and how did you address them?

First, the University’s system is such that different tutors with different areas of expertise are spread out across colleges. The paper must be conceived in such a way that the tutors can teach to their strengths. The usual way to resolve differences between methods, approaches, or areas of scholarly expertise is often through lengthening the reading list! But this can mean the reading list eventually loses an overarching structure or integrity. If reform is attempted, without the principles and criteria of equality and diversity at the forefront, a curriculum diversity review runs the risk of divisions rather than the means to overcome them.

Second, some faculty might be concerned that their particular approach might get overlooked or downgraded in the process of conducting a curriculum review. Some, of course, can be set in their ways and will be reluctant to change their approach until a new framework allows them to.

Third, there is the recurring criticism more broadly that what we are doing amounts to box-checking (for example, this has been raised with Athena Swan processes); that is, managing to address a set of criteria without fundamentally changing anything.  The best response to this concern is a commitment to exploring processes (rather than only institutionalising procedures formally) in a way that maintains interest in diversity, and so that the culture of the faculty and department remains receptive and open to these continuing debates and ideas.

Finally, many undergraduate students who receive much of their core teaching from college are often unaware of the mechanisms and avenues for participating in curriculum diversity review and effecting change at the course level exist in the first place. Many interested in these issues may be active in their colleges or in student societies, but aren’t involved at the level of Department course-design.  

The way to address these gaps is of course to have engagement at different levels, and to have everybody aware of this is an ongoing process rather than a one-off endeavour. Some practical steps the workshop panels have suggested in the coming year towards this longer term process are, for example, shared folders where workshop members can upload suggestions for different weeks’ readings; a journal and book reading club; a seminar series where undergraduates, graduates and faculty could discuss the intellectual aspects of these topics in an open forum, or in one day workshops.

 5. What are some examples of the changes that have been implemented or other effects that the curriculum diversity initiative has had on the way politics courses are taught in the Department?

In the second workshop, the Prelims papers considered recommendations for three potential new topics – multiculturalism, women’s representation and state-society relations; the Government & Sociology panel considered a proposal to add a topic on colonialism and colonial institutions; and the IR panel discussed adding more critical literature to the topic on theoretical approaches, as well as on power. Several panels have decided to widen the geographical focus of their papers, enhance the intellectual diversity as represented in the reading lists, as well as foregrounding issues of race and gender in the syllabi.   

There are a series of knock-on effects. Besides the huge and immediate benefit of reconnecting colleagues with each other, its effect has been highly positive in other ways.  For example, a colleague who specializes in quantitative methods, Andy Eggers (and who was not directly involved with the core paper curriculum review with the panels), read the papers circulated to faculty, and wrote to me that he had reflected on the issues raised, and changed some of his readings for methods teaching accordingly.



[1] The Comparative Government and Political Sociology papers are the responsibility of a single Government & Sociology Panel.