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The objective serves as a tool for reflection - not a straightjacket

Tomas Bergström, Head of Department of Political Science, explains the rule of thumb of a 40-60 percent ratio between female and male authors represented in course reading lists.
"Only one of many tools for generating awareness of gender issues among the department’s staff and students."

How are reading lists adopted at the Department of Political Science?

In light of the information about the Department of Political Science that has recently been circulating in the media, and as head of department, there is reason for me to clarify a few things.

Pursuant to the Swedish Higher Education Ordinance (1993:100, Chapter 6), all courses offered by higher education institutions shall have a course syllabus (Section 14). The course syllabus is to specify the cycle in which the course is given, the number of credits, objectives, specific entry requirements, how student performance is assessed and any other regulations required (Section 15). Besides degree ordinances, the course syllabus is thus the most important policy document in higher education. The syllabus provides students and other interested parties with information about the content and expected learning outcomes of the course, and – above all – it establishes a foundation for academic staff at higher education institutions, in their capacity as public officials, to exercise public authority.

Pursuant to the Delegation Rules and Forms of Procedure for the Faculty of Social Sciences (reg. no STYR 2017/744), the authority to make decisions regarding the approval of course syllabi and reading lists is delegated to the relevant departmental board, which is a collegial body. Decisions regarding course syllabi and required reading relate to one another, as the required reading is determined on the basis of the information provided about the course content in the associated syllabus. At the Department of Political Science, the board, in accordance with current practice, adopts course syllabi and reading lists following a proposal from the lecturers in charge of the course. In accordance with the List of Rights for Students at Lund University, course syllabi are normally to be made available at least one month prior to the application deadline. The reading list should, as far as possible, be available eight weeks before the start of the course, and any changes made to the reading list must be announced at least one month before the start of the course. It is important that the information about required reading is made available in good time, partly to ensure access and enable study planning, and partly to make the literature available in other forms, such as talking books, when necessary.

For many years, the Department of Political Science in Lund has been actively and systematically engaged in issues of gender equality and equal opportunities. One of the many manifestations of this work is the goal of achieving a more even gender distribution among the authors included in course reading lists at the department. The reason for this goal is, among other things, that the gender distribution among authors of the required reading in political science, as in many other social science disciplines, is generally very slanted towards male authors – a bias that usually reflects neither the current knowledge production in the field, nor the existing publishing patterns.

The department’s pursuit of a more even gender balance among authors of required reading has been defined as an objective, formulated as a rule of thumb that the ration between male and female authors should, if possible, be in the range 40–60 per cent. If this objective is not achieved in a course, the lecturers responsible are asked to submit a justification to the departmental board explaining why. This justification, as well as the board’s consideration for its decision regarding the reading list, is reviewed in light of the information about the course content as stated in the syllabus. As the department’s objective is not mandatory, insomuch that a deviation is usually accepted on the basis of a well-founded justification, it effectively serves as a tool for reflection and reconsideration as opposed to a straightjacket. The rule of thumb simply means that course convenors, on the basis of the content of the syllabus, are asked to stop and think, and to make an effort to find relevant literature written by the underrepresented gender, as far as possible.

It can be argued that this objective, with the accompanying rule of thumb, is a blunt instrument for realising ambitions of gender equality. That may be true; it is, after all, only one of many tools for generating awareness of gender issues among the department’s staff and students. However, the Department of Political Science’s experience of working in this direction for many years has been good. Although the reading lists for the department’s courses still rarely meet the stated objective, the application of the rule of thumb has resulted in an increased awareness of the current research situation, greater variation in the literature used on the department’s courses and, in turn, education of higher quality.

When it comes to the required reading at the department, which recently has been the subject of considerable media attention regarding the course “Modern Society and Its Critics”, the proposed reading list was presented to the board at a very late stage. The required reading was significantly different from the literature used previously for the same course. The syllabus was adopted long before. The course description, as stated in the current syllabus, is as follows:

“Most people in today’s society subscribe to a version of the ideals of the Enlightenment, including rationalism, universal values and human rights. We generally believe that mankind can control history and nature and that we can make progress. As a result of the revolutions in France and in the United States at the end of the eighteenth century, ideas such as these were turned into political programs that gained almost universal adherence. But the ideals had critics too, both at the time and to this day. In this course it is these critics we will study: romantics, conservatives, reactionaries, as well as assorted radicals and revolutionaries. This is a course in the history of political ideas with a focus on texts produced by political thinkers, but the ideas will always be discussed in their historical and social contexts.”

Based on the current syllabus, the board found it problematic to adopt the new reading list, from which most of the previously included and relevant female authors had been excluded and the very weak presence of female authors remained. Nowhere in the course description does it say, as stated in the media, that the course is mainly about fascism based on original sources, nor did the lecturers suggest that the syllabus be changed in this direction for the autumn semester.

In light of the situation, the board could have decided to cancel the course for the current semester, pending a revision of the syllabus. As the information about the course had already gone out to students, and a number of other reasons for why it seemed important that the course was given, the board decided to instead reintroduce some of the authors used on the course during the previous semester, based on the same course description. An alternative would have been to keep the identical reading list, in view of the unchanged syllabus. However, such a decision would mean that the board to a much lesser extent accommodated the lecturers’ proposal for a new reading list.


Tomas Bergström

Head of Department