There’s an experience that’s been all-too-common in higher education classrooms: A professor asks students in a lecture hall to look to either side, warning them that one of those classmates would drop out by the following term. Sarah Kennedy, an associate professor of biochemistry at Radford University, remembers it well.
“That sort of attitude – you’ve got to pick yourself up by the bootstraps – that's not this generation of student and that message does not sit well. They'll just pick up by their bootstraps and leave,” Kennedy said.
While academic success has historically been the onus of the student, Kennedy said, faculty are now realizing that creating a diverse, equitable, inclusive and respectful (DEIR) classroom that builds confidence among students from all backgrounds is educators’ responsibility.
As the primary investigator of a recent study that examined methods of educating and supporting faculty in creating more inclusive classrooms, Kennedy said that her research will inform Radford’s Quality Enhancement Plan, which is being compiled as the university prepares to reaffirm its accreditation. The study, “Faculty Professional Development on Inclusive Pedagogy Yields Chemistry Curriculum Transformation, Equity Awareness, and Community,” was published in September in the Journal of Chemical Education.
Low-cost discussion groups offer high value
Radford faculty members who participated in the study reported that a DEIR-themed reading and discussion group was more valuable than, among other options, a two-day training seminar. Faculty members found that unscripted discussions enabled exploration and self-reflection on ways they were contributing to exclusionary practices. Kennedy recommends these low-cost discussion groups as a starting point for colleges and universities and said deans and department heads can spur these efforts by openly signaling that anti-racism efforts are important.
Tara Phelps-Durr, department chair for biological sciences at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, is a former Radford faculty member and a co-author of the study. Creating a safe space where faculty could share situations they hadn’t handled well was key.
“As examples would come up, faculty would come clean [saying], ‘I think I've actually done that, I've made that mistake in my class,’” Phelps-Durr said. “As it came out, everyone started to recognize that they weren't the only one.”
“No one wants to say ‘I'm a racist,’ right? But we are in higher education, which is a system that was built on racism, and so the work needs to be done,” Kennedy adds. For universities seeking to improve their teaching practices, she advises identifying a core group of faculty who are interested. As the group becomes more established, Kennedy predicts that student input will strongly support, and eventually demand, the growth of DEIR efforts. Kennedy’s group also worked with a DEIR consultant, who she said helped introduce tougher questions, and challenged the group about core beliefs.
When to hire a consultant
Should DEIR reading groups always seek out a consultant? Sapna Cheryan, a social psychology professor at the University of Washington, said the decision to use a consultant or involve a person of color is complex, and emphasizes that white professors should first consult materials written by people of color, and educate themselves as much as possible. Cheryan, whose research focuses on stereotypes, identity, and prejudice, was not involved in the Radford study.
“White educators should do as much as they can on their own and there are a lot of available resources written by people of color,” Cheryan said. Equally, if not more important, she said, is ensuring impacted parties – in this case students – have a say in the process. That means surveying students before, after, and even during the process of implementing changes designed to promote DEIR.
Involving students in pedagogy changes
While Cheryan wasn’t involved in the Radford study, she praised its faculty-led approach. As a next step, she recommends new interventions be audited for effectiveness and any unintended consequences.
“Taking the assessment one step further and, and following the students in these classes to see how they respond to it would also be really important,” she said, suggesting faculty members ask questions such as, “What was the classroom like before this intervention happened? What was it like after and was it successful for everybody?” She also advised a simpler metric: watching whether enrollment into a particular course changes.
Radford’s chemistry program is approved by the American Chemical Society (ACS), whose Committee for Professional Training recently incorporated updated DEIR guidelines in its Guidelines for Program Approval. Among its critical requirements are that chemistry departments support or provide diversity and inclusion workshops for faculty and staff.
“The chemistry enterprise thrives when we, its practitioners, align all the aspects of our scientific endeavors - including professional interactions and engagement with other scientists, trainees, and the general public - with our core DEIR values and conduct policies,” according to a statement published by ACS last August.
Everyday ways to incorporate DEIR
Meanwhile, chemistry faculty members, department chairs, deans and others can access a resource list Kennedy compiled, which includes some of the materials used in her faculty development groups, including the books Blindspot and Whistling Vivaldi. There are also opportunities to incorporate DEIR principles immediately.
“If you have, for example, students of color that all sit in the back together, and don't participate, what message are you sending if you're not actively asking for their input and asking for their voice to be heard?” Kennedy said. Phelps-Durr pointed to office décor as another often-forgotten area where faculty are signaling their own values and beliefs.
Phelps-Durr, a geneticist by training, cited her own James Watson bobblehead toy as an example. “Just thinking about, well, who are your heroes in science, and do you have those posters hanging up? And are those posters all older white men, or do they represent diversity?” Teaching science from a historical perspective, she adds, could mean lectures full of photos of white men, which doesn’t create an inclusive environment, either.
So, what does? Beyond discussion groups, Phelps-Durr said learning each student’s name is basic, “low-hanging fruit.” In group projects, she advises assigning students to groups (rather than permitting self-assignment), and asking groups to create roles and tasks that they divide among members, and then rotating those roles as projects progress. Faculty members should also assess what is not said through body language and observing student interactions, Phelps-Durr said. They should also seek to understand behaviors like sleeping in class or attendance issues, without making assumptions about a student’s motivation. Efforts like these, alongside more formal training and self-examination, can lead a diverse set of students to success in STEM.
Student voices are also critical to spearheading DEIR-training efforts. “I think you want to think carefully about what data is going to be most impactful, and what might convince faculty that hey, we need to talk about this. Just talking to the students is really important because if what the faculty think and what the students think don't match, there's a conversation there to be had,” Cheryan said.
Ultimately, Phelps-Durr, a first-generation college student herself, didn’t understand “the rules of college.” Phelps-Durr said it wasn’t clear why, for example, she had to take chemistry as a biology major.
“Somebody did finally pull me aside and say, ‘Now this is a game and this is how you play it,’” she said. “I really needed somebody to do that, and I just recognized when I started teaching that there were still a lot of students who didn't know how to play this game.” She hopes that the study will lead to more students from diverse backgrounds opening up, making new connections with professors and, perhaps even finding a professional in STEM.