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Diversity and Inclusion – Put It in the Syllabus!

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

Message Number: 
1625

“It’s in the syllabus!” is an answer that rings out in many college and university classrooms at this time of year. Here, we present a feasible way for STEM faculty to use their syllabi strategically.

Folks:

The posting below offers a tangible strategy for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) faculty who want to address diversity and inclusion.  It is by Prof. Monica Linden (Neuroscience, Brown University) and Mary Wright, Ph.D. (Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning, Brown University). See also Sheridan's newsletter.  © 2017 Brown University. Reprinted with Permission.

Regards,

 

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

UP NEXT: Planning a Graceful Exit to Retirement and Beyond: Starting Points and Guiding Considerations

 

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Diversity and Inclusion – Put It in the Syllabus!

 

Many colleges and universities have developed diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, which often offer plans around curricular changes, hiring practices, and professional development. Although these move our institutions in encouraging directions, it can be difficult for some faculty to see their role in these initiatives, particularly those whose research and teaching often does not seem to directly address issues of identity, power, and privilege. In particular, many STEM faculty share a commitment to student retention and the success of diverse learners, but they may not know what is possible for inclusive teaching, given the constraints on their curriculum. However, classrooms are key sites for students to experience inclusion, and syllabi are a feasible, but important, vehicle for STEM faculty to explicitly welcome students to their course. 

Specifically, as a Neuroscience faculty member (Monica) and a Center for Teaching and Learning Director (Mary) at Brown University, we suggest that diversity and inclusion syllabus statements can offer powerful messages to students in STEM classes. Diversity statements or classroom discussion agreements have become more common in the social sciences and humanities, but they still stand apart from the norm in STEM classes. Here, we offer a sample statement that faculty can adapt for their own teaching, and we also describe the process of creating the document – a partnership with faculty and students. This “small teaching” step is something that many faculty can incorporate into their courses, regardless of course content.

How to begin

The idea began over a year ago when Monica had a discussion with students in her course about the proper use of terms related to sex and gender when discussing male and female brains. She felt the corrections were helpful and wanted future students to know that they should feel comfortable coming to her with this type of feedback. She also wanted to comment on the perspective of the readings, acknowledging that they were primarily contributed by white men (and explaining why). Monica raised these tentative ideas in a Facebook discussion with some former students, asking them what they would want included on a diversity and inclusion syllabus statement. One student, Krishnan Aghi (student names used with permission), referred her to an article on trigger warnings by E. Price, which presented a “getting to know you worksheet” with questions like, “Which pronouns should I use to refer to you?” and “How can I make this class a more comfortable environment for you?” Further, Krishnan, and other former students including Marion Wellington, suggested some language to Monica about how to address pronouns, acknowledge that students may be impacted by events outside of the class, and signal that she was open to feedback and learning more. (These ideas are represented in paragraphs four through six below.)

A diversity and inclusion syllabus statement

After synthesizing the ideas from the students, Monica created this statement:

DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION STATEMENT: In an ideal world, science would be objective. However, much of science is subjective and is historically built on a small subset of privileged voices. In this class, we will make an effort to read papers from a diverse group of scientists, but limits still exist on this diversity. I acknowledge that it is possible that there may be both overt and covert biases in the material due to the lens with which it was written, even though the material is primarily of a scientific nature. Integrating a diverse set of experiences is important for a more comprehensive understanding of science. I would like to discuss issues of diversity in neuroscience as part of the course from time to time.

Please contact me (in person or electronically) or submit anonymous feedback if you have any suggestions to improve the quality of the course materials.

Furthermore, I would like to create a learning environment for my students that supports a diversity of thoughts, perspectives and experiences, and honors your identities (including race, gender, class, sexuality, religion, ability, etc.) To help accomplish this:

If you have a name and/or set of pronouns that differ from those that appear in your official Brown records, please let me know!

If you feel like your performance in the class is being impacted by your experiences outside of class, please don’t hesitate to come and talk with me. I want to be a resource for you. Remember that you can also submit anonymous feedback (which will lead to me making a general announcement to the class, if necessary to address your concerns). If you prefer to speak with someone outside of the course, the Associate Dean of the College for Diversity Programs is an excellent resource.

I (like many people) am still in the process of learning about diverse perspectives and identities. If something was said in class (by anyone) that made you feel uncomfortable, please talk to me about it. (Again, anonymous feedback is always an option.)

As a participant in course discussions, you should also strive to honor the diversity of your classmates.

Versions of this statement were used in her neuroscience classes including a large (>100 students) lecture class on neural systems, a mid-sized (~35 student) lecture class on the neurobiology of learning and memory, and a small (17 student) senior-level seminar about the amygdala. Student feedback was immediately positive. Students complimented the statement, and for Monica, this invitation to talk with her opened up lines of communication in a way that she had not experienced before. Krishnan, now a graduate student in biology at Berkeley, used a similar statement in their lab section.

Sharing and adapting the statement

After hearing about the success of the statement, Mary included it in the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning’s monthly newsletter on teaching strategies. This shared the idea with other instructors, and since then, Monica has heard from several Brown University STEM faculty that they have adopted her statement for their courses. Some faculty also adapt the statement to welcome students with a variety of skill levels (e.g., diversity of math backgrounds). While we welcome these efforts at inclusion, we also caution instructors who go too far afield of identity-based characteristics, which are rarely discussed in many STEM courses.

“It’s in the syllabus!” is an answer that rings out in many college and university classrooms at this time of year. Here, we present a feasible way for STEM faculty to use their syllabi strategically. Of course, it is critical to weave attention to diversity and inclusion throughout the contours of a full class, but a syllabus statement is an important step toward building inclusive classrooms from day one.

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Dr. Monica Linden is a Senior Lecturer in Neuroscience at Brown University.

Dr. Mary Wright is Director of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Sociology