Dialogue, equity, Inclusion

The Biases Within: Getting our House in Order

Over my morning coffee I read the disturbing account of yet another incident in the long list of incidents where our students of color are targeted.  The Inside Higher Ed account, Entering Campus Building While Black,  includes troubling video footage and a list of similar events on other campuses over the last year.  In every case, those involved felt they were just being vigilant, just following usual protocols, yet these events rarely (never) seem to happen to our white students. It’s time for a little self-reflection folks.

The cascade of stereotypes that provoke these incidents are pervasive and exhausting.  Our words may speak to inclusion, but our deeply held experiences of “other” are driving our behaviors.  When we add the variable of gun violence in education contexts, it gets even worse.  We see something/say something, but we don’t seem to see whom we’re saying something about. In recent years, large bodies of research have shown us that our incarceration practices are littered with racists assumptions and practices, and I’m grateful that we are starting to see some real reforms.  It’s time to turn that attention to our own practices.

I’m not going to sugar coat this folks, here’s the deal.

Elite campuses are more likely to end up in this awful harassment cycle because the numbers of students of color are small.  Admissions practices, unequal access to quality K-12 education, and plain old money makes this so. When numbers are small, people notice the otherness of the non-white student more intensely.  They appear out-of-place (largely because we’ve not really made a place for them) and then they become the focus when we enforce our rules related to safety and security.  It becomes a series of natural seeming steps, that reinforce our biased assumptions and practices.

But elite campuses are not alone.  Even on more diverse campuses like mine, there are other kinds of targeting that routinely occur.  Our Muslim students are called upon to explain Islam. Our African-American students are asked to explain racism.  Our LGTBQ students must share their coming out stories. Our women are frequently asked to adjust to environments that are distinctly male. In our attempts to be inclusive, we end up creating uncomfortable situations where students are asked to be representatives of that “other” culture, asking them to speak for the whole.

Our faculty are not yet diverse enough and so those who are from backgrounds other than white and middle class are faced with the same burden that our students of color face.  They become the representatives of their cultures, while at the same time serving as a refuge for students of color, who seek mentors who understand their experiences. As these faculty try to juggle the ordinary burdens of teaching, publishing, and earning tenure, the extra responsibilities of being the representative of a specific group, puts a strain on their time, making the path to tenure more strenuous than that of their white peers. And by being put in the position of being the representative of their cultures, we continuously repeat the message, you are other.

And our curriculum, well don’t get me started on that. If all of the above represents tokenism (and it does), our curriculum is the epitome of that practice.  Somehow we think a few focused courses on particular groups are enough to address the long history of exclusion.  We congratulate ourselves for noticing an absence in our offerings, write a course to address it, and then go one with the usual approaches and subjects.

Yikes!

Clearly my encounter with the news this morning made me angry.  I suspect many of my colleagues feel the same way.  We did not become educators to perpetuate the structural racism in our society.  Most of us just wanted to immerse ourselves in the fields we love and most of us thought when we did that, that systemic bias was not really part of that immersion. Unfortunately we were wrong.  Absolutely nothing we do is immune to the socio-cultural biases in which we operate.  Yes, even scientific inquiry has biases built-in, so, no exceptions here.

But I’m never one to stop with just observing a problem.  What are we to do? The list is incredibly long, but here are the first three steps we can take to get started.

  1. Don’t save meaningful encounters with diverse peoples for special occasions.  Let’s develop practices that weave real encounters with people and perspectives different from our own into the everyday life of the campus.  College is the ideal place to grow these habits.  We engage with people who are seeking new ideas and experiences by virtue of being here, so let’s redesign how we organize assignments, groups, spaces, and time so that these conversations are not the exception, but the rule.  Research suggests that just plain exposure can make a difference in our habit of stereotyping, so let’s orchestrate continuous exposure to all members of our community.
  2. Be much more thoughtful about curriculum.  Let’s not be fooled into believing that the stories and facts we have gathered represent the totality of the human experience.  Whose discoveries are we celebrating?  Whose histories are we exploring?  Which artists are we featuring?  We all know that the digital universe has given us ever more access to information and discoveries.  Our challenge is what to address right now.  If we just remember that the goal is to help our students figure out how to evaluate well and argue with information, then what we argue about is really not that important.  There is plenty of room in the curriculum to be more intentional about the diversity of narratives, discoveries, and social structures.  Rather than being fixated on the usual stories, let’s get obsessed with just how many stories we can tell.
  3. Think about the habits within our disciplines that may be excluding people.  Is the baseline knowledge for admission to your field something that everyone is likely to have encountered? If not, reconsider your baseline and build bridge programs where necessary.  Are the paths to graduate education clear enough that anyone could figure it out? If not (and no one should be answering yes to this), find ways to make the paths more transparent for all so that we might cultivate new voices and colleagues from many backgrounds.  Are the rules for academic success in your discipline (department) clearly articulated and supported? If not, make it so.  That’s not just for our students, that’s for all of our peers.  If we move from the informal to the formal articulation of the rules, we help level the playing field.

There is so much more to say and do, but I’m asking us to just start here. These things are within our control and they have the potential to transform our campus cultures. If we get serious about these three steps and take action, the next three steps will reveal themselves and we might be able to start cultivating the habits we need to truly transform our institutions.

I’m tired of waking up to these horrible news stories and I not satisfied with thinking this is someone else’s problem.  It’s time for us to get our house in order.

Higher Education

Listening Professions

On April 2nd, I had the pleasure of hosting WCSU’s sixth Scholars in Action event.  Twice a year I bring together faculty who are doing scholarship in very different fields, but with themes that connect them. These interdisciplinary panels always spark fun and interesting conversations and, I hope, a sense of camaraderie among all who attend. While all of these events have been thought-provoking, this most recent one was particularly compelling.

The panel, “Acts of Violence, Acts of Grace,” explored topics that were of great cultural significance.  Communication professor, Jay Brower focused on media coverage of violent and traumatic events, reminding us of our complicity in its popularity and repetition.   Brian Clements of our Professional Writing program, described the ways in which he has drawn together his art (poetry) with political activism in his work, From Bullets to Bells: Poets and Citizens Respond to Gun Violence. Deneen Harris and Karen McLean of the Social Work program illuminated the concept of historical trauma (trauma arising from hundreds of years of ill-treatment and oppression) and the strain of empathic engagement in the field of social work, and the connection between the two.  George Kain, former police officer and professor of Justice and Law Administration, described his experiences studying and teaching about the death penalty and his own transformation from pro- to anti- death penalty sentencing.  Finally, Greg Haynes of the Music programs described the project of constructing a piece of music called Peace. 

The importance of these topics is undeniable and the audience enthusiasm was palpable.  Each professor described ways in which this work has become part of their classes, applying their scholarship in ways that easily illustrate the value of continued investment in the growth and development of the scholarly endeavors our faculty.  There is plenty to follow-up on, but I want to highlight an important take-away from this conversation for all of us in higher education.

In a nutshell, education is a listening profession, obsessed with the holistic of the student experience that extends far beyond the classroom. Listening professions need room for rest.

I arrive at this thought as a result of the conversations connecting these interesting works of scholarship.  As each participant described the ways in which this work informed their teaching, and the deep emotional connection to it, I started to imagine the psychic energy required.  When Drs. Harris and McLean then discussed the self-care practices they are teaching future social workers so that they might manage the emotional exhaustion that arises from the deep empathic connections to their clients, I thought, we need to do the same in higher education.

Here’s the thing, we do not just deliver content and let students figure it out.  We build relationships with students, meeting them wherever they started in this education process. They come to us with varied assumptions and experiences of education (and life) and these assumptions and experiences shape their performance in the classroom.  We then task ourselves with listening to their stories and finding ways to bridge differences so that all students have a chance at success.  This alone is an amazing juggle, asking us to continuously imagine responses to our teaching from multiple perspectives so that everyone might succeed.  This juggle is little understood outside of the classroom, and it is not easy, but we do it every day. But wait, there’s more…

Topics of discussion can be controversial and we are expected to handle them without alienating anyone in the room.  This isn’t just an issue for humanities disciplines: we encounter controversy in business, chemistry, nursing, and, well everywhere. We have to be attuned to the many ideas our students bring to the dialogue and coach each one fairly in their understanding of a controversy.  We must suspend our own emotional connection to an idea, as best we can, and hop between arguments and evidence with agility and fairness in a way that no other profession demands. We don’t just need doctorates in our disciplines, we need to continuously pay attention to the values of all, so that we might encourage close scrutiny of ideas, values, and evidence.  We listen to the students, to the public, to the media, and to the research, refining our approaches every semester. But wait, there’s more…

Most of us also engage our students’ day to day realities, which can be incredibly challenging.  We hear tales of the transitions from adolescence to adulthood that are often unsettling for the student. Their images of their strengths, weaknesses, and values are all emerging and changing and they talk to us in person or in papers in ways that require, or at least encourage, response.  Some are dealing with traumatic events, homelessness, general financial insecurity, so we try to help them get the resources they need. Some have had a lousy educational foundation and now we’re trying to help them succeed without destroying their sense of self-worth.  We reach out as best we can, trying desperately to get them to use the resources available.  And this is just the list I can remember, today. I’m sure there’s more.

In other words, information delivery or explanation of a subject is the easiest part of this job.  It is so much more.  Like social workers, therapists, and health professionals, we are tasked with listening carefully and reading closely the signs that are the clues to how to help our students.  This takes a tremendous effort. Like those other professions, we are also unsuccessful part of the time, which takes a tremendous toll in terms of our emotions, and in this field, in terms of our budgets, enrollment, and how the culture (state) sees us.

And yet we do all that extra work, the rest of the job, willingly and habitually.  Those of us who choose education as a career hold the hope of success for all students dear. We are committed to the notion that every one of them can succeed if they will just meet us halfway. We are not satisfied when we aren’t successful in reaching them, and so we continuously reflect, revise, and try again.

It is draining work, this listening profession, and it isn’t limited to the classroom. It is part of all aspects of the university, from teaching faculty, to advisors, financial aid counselors, resident assistants, coaches, and even those of us in administration.  We are all listening carefully and taking action as best we can. Like our faculty supporting future social workers by teaching them self-care, I’d like to suggest we need to teach ourselves the same.  

So today I am congratulating my colleagues for the incredible work that they do, and reminding them to make room for a little rest, recovery, and forgiveness for any failed attempts at reaching a student. We cannot continue to care at this pace without acknowledge the cost and celebrating the value of our efforts. Take a deep breath, reflect, rest, and yes, repeat.

Higher Education, Thinking

Spring Cleaning

This morning I awoke to the welcome sounds of birds.  They’ve returned to the neighborhood, adding to the mix of voices that accompany my morning coffee and email routine. I have zero vocabulary for identifying birds (I call my friend Felicia when I really want to know), but what I can say is that I recognize the repeat visitors and the warm weather their return signals.

Waking to those voices always brings a sense of relaxation and joy.  We’re in the final weeks of our spring semester, the celebratory rituals have begun, and even though I don’t have summers off, the relaxed rhythms of the warmer months beckon. We’ve almost made it through another year.

Then it happens…. Ahhhh,  there’s so much left to do!  There are plans in progress that are yet to be finished.  My goals for the year are only half-way done.  My hopes for completion seem foolish at best.  And that’s just me.  My faculty and students are having the same moment multiplied by 1000s.  How do we get it all done?

Well, we can’t.  So let’s just accept that. But there is value in this moment of panic.  It provides an opportunity to evaluate the goals we set and consider adjustments for the future.  Were all of those goals worth it?  Do they get at the heart of what we wanted to do?  Are there too many? Too few?  It is time for a little spring cleaning.

As I adjust my list to something more reasonable and perhaps attainable, I am thinking about curriculum design. At universities, much of the curriculum is considered without reference to the whole.  Although departments work together to develop shared goals in the form of course descriptions, outlines, and learning outcomes, the courses themselves are mostly developed in isolation.  Faculty bring their talents to a topic, interpreting it through their particular lenses, with little thought to what else a student might be learning.  And, although the overall path through a degree is strictly defined in some majors (usually in STEM disciplines), in most cases the path is only encoded as far as course levels and a few pre-requisites, with the rest being experienced as a series of topics to be pursued and then, well, mostly forgotten.

This reality leads me to think about our students lives.  Project due dates are looming, with a generally pile up of research and exams and presentations for the end of the month of April.  How will they get it all done? How will they fully benefit from the creativity and insights of the faculty if we are piling on with no concern for that end of semester reality?

Here’s a thought.  Let’s do a little less.

We can start by looking at our syllabi and asking the question, what did I truly want to accomplish in this course?  All indicators suggest that the details of our courses fade as students leave for their next semester’s work, so what should they take with them?  Looking at what you planned, right at this moment when the fast slide to the finish line begins, what might you omit next time?  What is not essential to the things you’d like your students to carry forward? When you find it, write it down for next year.

Then let’s do a little reorganizing.

Remind yourself that a) your students are in three to four other classes, all with readings, assignments, and exams weighted toward the end of the semester and b) feedback is a really good thing for learning.  How might you reorganize the material that is essential, so that less of the big stuff is saved for the last weeks of the semester?  How might you make time for feedback and revision? Write it down for next year.

These are small steps, to be sure, but if we start to ask these questions regularly, we might be able to de-clutter our lists, creating just a little more room for honest engagement with ideas.  Let’s not equate academic rigor with a quantity of readings or assignments.  This just leads to skimming and superficial encounters with important concepts and texts.  Let’s not think that the most important measure of learning is a single large assignment, but build in the shorter building blocks that give room for improvement. Let’s not think of our courses in isolation, but consider the totality of a student’s schedule and find ways to weave that into our planning.

You see the world is full of information and we are all adept at touching the surface of ideas.  But to get to the small moments that can build real understanding, we need more time. Universities need to create that time in our schedules and our curriculum as a counter-balance to the abundance of information and experiences at the touch of our fingertips. We need to make room for thinking.  So in the spirit of spring cleaning, let’s sweep away the excess and do a little less.

We might even find it brings us joy.