Teaching Today

A Dozen-Plus Ways You Can Foster Educational Equity

Non-Black faculty members have the power to help dismantle educational inequities, argue Viji Sathy, Kelly A. Hogan and Calvin M. Sims, and they suggest some practical ways for how to start.

July 1, 2020
 
 
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Recently on social media, we have seen a lot of people posting ways white and non-Black people of color can support the Black Lives Matter movement. Like many of you, we’ve taken these suggestions to heart and taken action in various ways.

We think analogous lists tailored to educators and administrators in higher education are warranted and needed. Since the U.S. professoriate is majority white, some faculty members may not recognize the power and privilege they hold to dismantle educational inequities. For those who recognize that and are looking for practical ways to translate this, we hope to start a list that you can add to with colleagues. We recognize that departments and institutions have even greater power to enact change than individuals through policy and incentives, but we’ve chosen to keep this specific list about individual actions.

Recognize trauma and make students feel safe. The past weeks of police violence against Black citizens have been traumatic for our nation, especially for Black students. Students processing these stressful events may find it difficult to focus on and complete their work. Don’t ignore discussing racism or events that you know are painful for many students. Try practicing phrases to open dialogues such as “I don’t know what you’re going through, but I’ll always be willing to listen and support you in any way I can.” Mays Imad provides principles and suggestions here to help guide our trauma-informed teaching practices.

Acknowledge and interrupt microaggressions in your classroom. Racism and racist acts don’t just happen outside our classes. Train yourself to recognize and acknowledge when a microaggression occurs in your classroom. Sometimes they are subtle, but the simple act of saying, “Hold on a moment, let’s examine what just occurred,” can be the opening to a fruitful discussion about intent versus impact. You may find it helpful to crowdsource examples with colleagues and role-play how to respond in or out of the classroom about these incidences to be better prepared for them the next time they arise. Invite your students to point out when you commit a microaggression, too. Create a structure in which anonymous feedback is not just solicited but also encouraged.

Create a sense of belonging for your students. Add symbols to your syllabus to let diverse groups of students feel included. As an example, you can add a Black Lives Matter icon. Tell your students, “You belong here” or “You are seen.” These are simple but powerful gestures we can make to acknowledge that some of our students have spent nearly all their lives being told or made to feel the opposite. Put it on your syllabus, say it in your class -- perhaps after a particularly tough assignment or exam -- send it in an email to your students. Some students do need to hear it, and it won’t harm the ones who don’t. Go out of your way to reach out to students, especially those of color, simply to say you notice their contributions to the class or their academic progress.

No matter what your discipline, bring issues of race and inequities into the material and provide examples of expertise from Black people. We suspect that there are a number of educators who are not sure how Black Lives Matter, racism or antiracism fits into their curriculum. Here are two examples from our own disciplines: race-based medicine (biology) and same-race recognition (psychology). Students want such work reflected in the reading assignments and class projects. Ask your students to help evaluate whom they want to read as it applies to your course if any viewpoints are missing.

Use inclusive teaching and grading practices. Learn more about what inclusive teaching means and how you can use it in your course design and interactions with students. As a primer, see our summary. You don’t have to learn these strategies alone. Many Centers for Teaching and Learning have workshops related to inclusive teaching and grading.

At its core, inclusive teaching means intentionally designing learning opportunities to achieve more equity. We know that these strategies disproportionately benefit people of color among other groups of students to reduce disparities, and inclusive teaching is a form of antiracism. Educators can immediately make their teaching more inclusive with some small tweaks and build on them to make bigger changes over several semesters.

For example, you can disrupt the paradigm of whom students think their most knowledgeable peers are through randomized calling and small group discussions. You can help eliminate norm-based grading culture (grading on a normal curve), which forces a set number of failing grades, creates a toxic classroom culture and can contribute to attrition of underrepresented students. In sum, make a promise to invest in your development as a teacher through readings and workshops about inclusive pedagogy.

Reflect on how inclusive your teaching is. Does your institution have a data analytics tool to disaggregate your grades by demographics like ours does? If not, whom do you need to ask on campus to see these kinds of data for your own course? Reviewing data over many semesters can help you determine if your strategies are making a difference to certain student groups. Routinely surveying students about your inclusive practices throughout your semester is another way to be reflective and show students that you are listening.

One easy way to do so is to ask your students at the start of the semester either in a survey or discussion board, “It is important to me that all members of the class feel supported, respected and included. Can you share with me your vision of what inclusion looks like in a course/classroom setting? If it helps, you can provide examples of what inclusion does not look like.”

Develop empathy and self-awareness. As noted in this article by Bryan Dewsbury and Cynthia Brame, it is hard to create a positive, supportive classroom climate for a diverse group of students without first having empathy for student experiences. Examining one’s own social identity around power, privilege and biases is difficult but necessary work for engaging with students inclusively. See these evidence-based teaching guides on developing empathy and self-awareness as a jumping-off point and investigate what kind of workshops are available through your institution’s diversity, equity and inclusion office.

Get to know students holistically to disrupt your own biases about who you think certain students are. Use office hours to have conversations with students beyond course content. Show interest by initiating conversation about their hometown and the hobbies and jobs they’ve had. Many institutions have programs that need faculty mentors, and if you want to help students who have been traditionally underrepresented in higher education or certain disciplines, these programs often need support. Donate to scholarships for these programs if you are able.

Be open to writing letters of recommendation. The willingness to provide strong letters of recommendation may be the first opportunity to make a major difference in students’ lives. Students of color may have had a considerably harder path compared to other students and may have faced racism, discrimination and prejudice for much of their lives. Your letter, and your willingness to write it, may be the validation the student needs that they can do academic work at the next level in spite of these difficulties. Additionally, it shows they belong in scholarly environments, where they may not see others who look like them.

Students might have different cultural standards for how they ask you to write this important document. Don’t hold it against students if they don’t meet your cultural understandings for how to request a letter from you. Don’t have rigid rules about who can and cannot have a letter. Learn about ways to eliminate biased language in your letter and consider providing students a form like this.

Find ways to recruit, admit and hire more faculty and students of color. Become a liaison to your campus diversity, equity and inclusion office. Be a voice on hiring committees that push for advertising widely to minority-focused Listservs and HBCUs, recommend ways to reduce bias and use other strategies listed here. Personally network with prospective students and faculty members at conferences. Kensha Marie Clark lists suggestions here, such as to “commit to giving recruitment seminars at predominantly minority institutions” and “build relationships with HBCUs that can serve as feeders for your program.” Work to ensure that faculty and staff members at every level -- undergraduate learning assistants, graduate students, faculty at every rank, administrators -- are representative of your student body.

Mentor graduate students of color. As Amanda Cornwall writes, learn more about how to be a better mentor. Additionally, challenge yourself to learn more about the distinct needs minority graduate students may have. Being open to learning about mentoring can help you guide students of color and support their career aspirations, whatever those may be. Reach out to graduate students of color that you don’t mentor in any official capacity to offer assistance and help them navigate the power structures in place. Oftentimes these students feel invisible to their faculty and university and may not be aware that others are available to guide them through the political nuances of academe. Be open to graduate students’ concerns and suggestions on how you and others can better serve our graduate students.

Support your colleagues of color in their research goals. Danielle Cadet has noted, “Your Black colleagues may seem okay right now, but chances are they are not.” It’s not enough to check on your colleagues after traumatic events and then go about business as usual. Find ways to be a better ally to them on a regular basis. For example, Jasmine Abrams provides an excellent list of ways to advance their research by inviting them to collaborate on research papers and grant opportunities, and by nominating them for guest speaking engagements. Amplify their work with colleagues at your campus and beyond. Cite their research and use your privilege to help advance their careers.

Support your colleagues of color in their teaching and service goals. In academe, tools such as rubrics are still emerging and infrequently used. Heavily relying on student ratings of teaching is insufficient because they are biased against many groups, including people of color. Help push to define what effective teaching looks like and how to identify unbiased markers of it before reviewing a candidate’s teaching materials.

For service, faculty of color also often take on a large service role on your campus. Chances are that they are also disproportionately asked to serve on committees, so they may be saying no many times more than you are. Help create a culture of transparency by asking for lists about service responsibilities to be made public to your department and ensure that faculty of color aren’t shouldering a far heavier load than others.

Work to retain your colleagues of color at any career stage. Do everything you can to actively support promotion and tenure for your colleagues of color. In Toxic Ivory Towers, Ruth Enid Zambrana describes how often people of color experience discrimination, racism, tokenism and devaluation through consistent microaggressions at their institutions. These experiences are powerfully evident in the recent posts using the hashtag #BlackintheIvory. Such posts are the tip of the iceberg, as many people may not feel safe to contribute. When your colleagues share incidents with you, believe them. Recognize the signs of gaslighting and how to support colleagues who experience it before they leave or get pushed out.

As noted in Presumed Incompetent, academe is not above racism. These are not isolated experiences or anecdotes. Racism doesn’t just exist “out there” -- it exists in every segment of our society and every work environment, including academe. We need more allies, more people taking on the hard work of antiracism. Rebecca Calisi Rodriguez reminds allies, “You will make mistakes. I do all the time. You will get called out, maybe shamed. But recall the best teacher is failure. Don’t get defensive. Listen, apologize, learn how to do better, and then do it. Just keep moving forward!” Let’s now grow this list and hold each other accountable for taking action.

We hope you will join us in this fight -- we could use everyone. Academe will no doubt change in response to addressing the many needs and concerns of students and faculty of color. Working together, we can make education much more equitable for all.

Bio

Viji Sathy is a professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Kelly A. Hogan is a professor in the department of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Calvin M. Sims is a professor in the department of psychology at Goucher College. The authors would like to acknowledge helpful feedback by Shauna Cooper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Enrique Neblett at the University of Michigan and Danielle Ellis at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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