After a two-year hiatus, WCSU hosted a full, in-person, open house again. No more heads on screens with strained or lagging interactions. We had two waves of visitors, eager to ask questions, discover the opportunities we offer, and get to know our campus. I had the pleasure of presenting an overview to a large group and then mingling as families visited with representatives from our academic departments, our student support services, and our co-curricular programs. As grateful as I am for all of the variations on Zoom that allowed us to proceed during the pandemic, there is nothing like the energy created by a bunch of excited folks gathered together. It was a great day.
As I strolled around the O’Neill Center where we set up our tables to display all we offer, I found myself answering lots of simple questions.
- Which department has the cybersecurity degree? Talk to the folks over there in the Management Information Systems.
- Can I major in Biology and still study art? Absolutely – check in with the Biology faculty, then stop in to learn about a minor in art. By the way, did you know about the field of scientific illustration?
- What do I do if I don’t know what I want to study? Stop over and see the folks in Academic Advising, they can tell you all about our exploratory pathways.
- Is there support for students who have learning differences? Absolutely, make sure you visit with AccessAbility Services.
- Do students have the opportunity to do internships? Sure. Go see our Career Success Center.
I was feeling really proud of all of the great work we are doing. I had the answers and they were good ones. Then I started speaking with a mother and her son and, well, it did not go as well as I’d hoped.
- Mother – What are you doing for POC? (People of Color, she explained.) Me: Oh, we have wonderful club opportunities if your son is interested in joining a particular affinity group.
- Mother: No, I mean what about curriculum? Me: Oh, we have courses that focus on African-American, Latin-American, and other cultural histories, literatures, and so on.
- No, I mean, will my son see himself in the curriculum throughout his education? Me: To some degree, but we can do better. The mother smiled at me and said, we all can (she’s in higher education, too). I appreciate the thoughtfulness of her response, but I left wanting to do more.
At WCSU, faculty have been engaging these questions in a variety of ways. Some are looking at the material they assign in their courses with an eye toward greater diversity. Some departments have taken the step to compare the readings and assignments across the whole of the major to look for balance. Some programs are looking at their guest speakers and trying to be more inclusive in the guest list so that all students have a chance to see themselves as professionals in the field. Some departments have worked together to consider how questions of equity can be infused in all that they teach. Still others are focusing on developing more inclusive teaching practices, exploring best practices and research to help them re-design their courses. In short, lots of work is going on as we try to become a more intentionally inclusive organization.
But we aren’t there yet. You see, nearly all of my sentences in the prior paragraph start with the word “some.” As long as it is “some” — well I can’t reassure that mother that her son will feel a pervasive sense of inclusion. I can’t reassure her that his exposure to scholars and mentors who look like him will be routine, rather than a special moment, topic, or focus of one course.
I have tried to have this conversation with my colleagues before, but I see now that I did it all wrong. I was looking for a common evaluation tool, to be used as a self-assessment by departments. In doing so, I ran into concerns about how this assessment would be used. Of course, I really had no plans other than for the departments to take a look at what they were assigning and make adjustments that were appropriate to their areas of expertise. But a common tool felt threatening and the conversation ended.
But I don’t want the conversation to end forever, so today, I am starting it again. Building on the many good impulses and edits to syllabi that I know have already informed our curriculum and teaching strategies, I am asking every faculty member to address the core question that was asked of me: Will all of our students see themselves in the curriculum? If the answer is “some” then we have more work to do. Let’s get to it.