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When asked about professors’ choices of course materials in a Student Voice survey, students are much more likely than not to say the content reflects diversity. Some 42 percent of the 3,004 two- and four-year college respondents say their professors choose diverse instructional materials representing a variety of perspectives and voices. Just 11 percent of the students say their professors choose homogeneous instructional materials not reflecting diverse perspectives.
The remainder of respondents, about half, don’t feel strongly either way. Still, the affirmative finding isn’t really a ringing student endorsement of course materials with respect to diversity. (For comparison, another Student Voice survey of 2,000 undergraduates fielded last year asked the same question, and 53 percent of students said their professors chose diverse instructional materials, while 28 percent said their professors chose homogeneous instructional materials.)
Results in the most recent survey are relatively consistent across various demographic groups, but there are some notable differences:
Major: Some 51 percent of arts and humanities students say their course materials are diverse, compared to 38 percent of students in the natural sciences and 44 percent in the social sciences.
Institution type: Just 36 percent of two-year college students say their course materials are diverse, while 43 percent of four-year college students say so.
Race: While 45 percent of white students say their materials are diverse, 35 percent of Asian students, 42 percent of Black students and 38 percent of Hispanic students say so.
Political leaning: Some 46 percent of students identifying as strong Democrats say their course materials are diverse, versus 35 percent of student Republicans.
Many teaching and learning centers and other campus resources offer faculty members help with choosing course materials that represent a variety of perspectives and voices. Tufts University Libraries, for instance, notes on its webpage for faculty members that diversifying syllabi might mean including “more content about marginalized peoples and more reading materials by marginalized scholars,” not simply to “meet quotas, but to foster an environment that includes knowledge that has been systemically excluded from academia.” “Marginalized groups” here refers to race, class, sexual orientation, gender or ability. Among other tips and resources, Tufts Libraries recommends:
- Considering diverse authorship of readings (ethnicity, gender, geographic location)
- Inviting guest speakers who bring different perspectives
- Using diverse audio and visual materials, such as films, interviews and TED talks
- Incorporating readings that challenge standard approaches
- Using primary research with authorship that reflects local collaborators
- Offering multiple perspectives in assigned readings and letting students choose what to read or discuss at times.
Bridget Trogden, associate dean for engagement and general education and professor of engineering and science education at Clemson University, says that belonging is key for college students, especially “new majority” students from backgrounds historically underrepresented in U.S. higher education. And students “seeing themselves and their values, aspirations, identities and intersectional identities in the educational materials and learning environments of classrooms is an important component of academic belonging,” which contributes directly to retention and graduation efforts.
Trogden, who oversaw the introduction of a new curriculum and inclusive excellence efforts at Clemson (and who will become dean of undergraduate education at American University this summer), says improving educational materials in STEM and other disciplines isn’t difficult, but it does “require intentionality.”
She recalls, for instance, how she and other organic chemists formed an ad hoc learning community in 2020 to improve antiracist practices in their courses. She still returns to the group’s collaborative document for resources.
Faculty members “can identify resources that highlight historically underrepresented researchers and activists in our fields,” she suggests. “We can include statements and topics in syllabi to decode our courses, structures and expectations. We can work to decolonize the power dynamics of our classrooms so what students already know and experience is also seen as a valuable contribution to the learning environment.” Another idea: presenting examples how course topics “connect to societal issues helps to democratize knowledge and bring about relevancy.”
Class Content Considerations
Several additional experts from across disciplines share what areas professors can focus on—including what actions to take—when looking to diversify course materials.
1. Accessibility, affordability and adaptation: Elisabeth McBrien, instructional design specialist at Oregon State University’s Ecampus, urges checking course accessibility by asking such questions as, “Can students with disabilities and those experiencing financial hardship access all materials?” McBrien advises adopting free open educational resources, or OER, noting that Oregon State supports professors in creating and adapting open textbooks.
As for textbooks from traditional publishers that lack representation, McBrien has blogged about how it’s important to acknowledge any shortcomings to students and to give publishers feedback (students can do this, too). Where contributions from a diverse range of scholars are lacking, O’Brien suggests adding scholarly articles, images or interviews from diverse professionals in the field to course sites in the learning management system.
“Consider highlighting professional organizations in your field that promote and mentor the professional development of scholars from specific historically underrepresented communities,” she adds.
McBrien also urges inviting feedback from students on this issue, via an anonymous course survey at the end of term.
2. Relatability and reflection: Michael Asher, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, says that instructors should adopt assignments where students “can reflect on the personal relevance of course content.” He says there’s a growing body of evidence that assignments asking students to consider how course content connects to their own lives helps encourage students from marginalized groups to remain in STEM. Case in point? Asher co-published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this month on a simple psychological intervention designed to reduce attrition in introductory science classes, including among underrepresented students.
The intervention involved three short writing assignments asking students to reflect on how course topics related to their own interests, values and goals. The number of students majoring in STEM fields two and a half years later increased by four percentage points over all, and among students from marginalized and underrepresented racial groups the increase was even better—14 percentage points.
3. Clarity and intentionality: Lee Ann Kahlor, professor of advertising and public relations at the University of Texas’s Moody College of Communication and Public Relations, suggests being clear and intentional in covering topics that intersect with race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. “Why is this the right conversation to have in this course and in this moment? Is it to understand various human experiences and how they intersect with topic X? Explain that reasoning to students. It might not be obvious to anyone but you,” she says.
Because Kahlor teaches advertising and public relations research in Texas, she begins her course with a summary of the demographics of her state and revisits this information when students start thinking about “who and what needs to be researched.” In classes involving case studies, she advises that professors cast a wide net, as “your interests and identity can limit you if you are not mindful.”
Need experts to feature in lecture? Kahlor says online searches often yield less than diverse results, so “spend a bit more time finding someone with a different identity or perspective than your prior experts. Can’t find any? Record them yourself,” via Zoom, with closed captioning. Speakers should be versed in student demographics so they understand their audience, she adds.
Like McBrien, Kahlor says student feedback is critical. “Create a class culture in which students know they can provide feedback on the materials you present. A lot of what I know about language use related to gender and sexuality, cultural appropriation and classroom exclusion was first introduced to me by students who wanted me to know I could do a better job teaching inclusively.”
4. Alternative perspectives: Timothy J. Shaffer, Stavros Niarchos Foundation Chair of Civil Discourse at the University of Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden Jr. School of Public Policy and Administration, says he identifies course material options based on his own sense of “what’s useful” for a particular topic and then researches what might be missing. What perspectives may have been excluded, intentionally or not? Crucially, this process “isn’t simply about finding balance,” Shaffer says, “but it is about offering viewpoints that differ and are robust and grounded in scholarship and thoughtfulness.”
Shaffer sees colleges and universities as “sites of democratic practice,” which should “welcome the opportunity to help create space for democracy to be practiced, and that democracy is comprised of people across the ideological spectrum.”
In Citizens, Civility and Change, the foundational course created for the SNF Ithaca Initiative at the Biden School, for example, Shaffer and students explore questions about what it means to be a democratic citizen today. One of the first class sessions is called “Us and Them,” and features readings from E. J. Dionne Jr., George Packer and Ted V. McAllister and Bruce P. Frohnen. Shaffer says it’s an “opportunity to help students think about concepts such as community and citizenship meaning very different but important things to them.”