equity, Higher Education, Inclusion

Asking Questions and Listening

With fall plans in place (at least for today), I can finally return to thinking about the future. A month ago, I started a conversation about equity on my campus. I have heard from faculty about some exciting courses planned for the fall and thereafter. The Chief Diversity Officer has developed a long list of materials to be shared with our community, materials that address curriculum, mental health, and workshops related to equity. I also had the pleasure of hearing from a small group of students about their experiences on my campus. This week I will focus on them.

Meeting with students is always informative. As an administrator, I generally only get to have conversations when students are excelling (need support for an award) or struggling (in danger of leaving school). Try as I might, getting routine meetings about topics like equity are hard to fit into my students’ lives and they often go missing. So, I am particularly grateful that they were able to meet with me during these summer months. We spent about an hour talking about some of the experiences they have had that have given them cause for concern. They were polite, trying to move their ideas forward without offending me. I tried to make room for what they reported, encouraging them to be specific. I will not reveal what was said, because they deserve privacy, but what I can say is that a lot of the feelings expressed suggested that they simply do not feel heard.

We are fond of rules in higher education. We have lots of good reasons for what we do, and we truly believe that we apply those reasons equally. For every troubling interaction the students described, I could hear our standard explanations. “We do this with all students.” “Grades are something you earn, not something we give.” “You missed the deadline.” “You neglected a step in the process.” “You did not see a tutor.” And so on. These standard answers may be true, but they do not fully consider the individual experiences of our students. Taken together, these responses communicate disinterest at best and disdain at worst.

I know we don’t mean that. I know that we are trying to be consistent in our actions and policies. I know that we are sometimes insulted by the demands for explanations for grades, or the excessive absences, or routine lateness, or what we think is a lack of follow through on the part of the students. I know that students do miss deadlines, show up late, do not follow directions, and otherwise undermine themselves. Nevertheless, when we give these standard answers, we have a way of marginalizing the already marginalized.

I think we forget that it takes a great deal of courage for students to go ahead and ask a question of a faculty member, or chair, or dean, or provost. We can be intimidating to students from all backgrounds. For first generation students and students from under-represented groups there is the added feeling that asking questions or explaining their situations will give the impression that they do not belong. When they finally do ask, our standard, policy-based responses may re-enforce that impression. After all, it was in the catalog so they should have known.

Perhaps, we should ask follow-up questions instead. For example: When students miss deadlines, we rightly say things like – “my syllabus says no late assignments.” That is fine and there are lots of good reasons for that policy. But it might also be fruitful to ask the student why they are having trouble meeting the deadlines. That simple question could communicate the kind of caring necessary to help a student be on time in the future. When a student is repeatedly late for class, we might just pull them aside and ask why? The act of asking could reveal a schedule or childcare disaster that they are trying to manage. When students do not understand their grades, we can respond with the part of our syllabus that explains our grading criteria. That’s fair. But we might also ask ourselves if we have fully explained the reason for those criteria. This extra step can sometimes help students commit to assignments that they might have thought of as lower priority in the list of things they are juggling.

Now, listen, I know that some students really do just ignore instructions and put in minimal efforts. I also know that I have faculty who regularly do this kind of outreach, going that extra-mile to try to help students succeed. I have no illusions that asking follow-up questions will clear up all of the confusion or misplaced effort among our students. I do not think it will cure all of the feelings of inequity that my students have revealed to me. Asking questions is just a minor step in the long march toward equity, that we should all be embarking on.

What I am saying, however, is that asking questions might further the conversation with our students. What they tell us might reveal some gaps in our explanations, or some non-standard paths to support, or it might just help us get to know the people in the room with us and all that they are carrying with them. Most of all, asking questions might communicate to students that their experiences matter, and that might just make a difference in our students’ path through their education.

Asking questions necessarily communicates that we are listening. Even if our final answer does not change, that simple act might help our students feel heard.

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