In 2013, the Being Black at the University movement, which gained traction through the #BBUM Twitter campaign, and the University of Michigan’s Understanding Race theme semester — a blend of intellectual and cultural immersion of coursework, lectures, exhibits, musical theatre performances and so on, enjoyed by the University and Ann Arbor community at large — sparked a wave of discussions about diversity, equity and inclusion within the student population at the University. Notably, the comments from these conversations brought about a focused committee to concentrate resources on creating inclusivity within the classroom at the University.

In an e-mail exchange with The Michigan Daily, Dr. Marjorie Horton, the assistant dean for undergraduate education, who attended several events, said she was “personally very disturbed and moved by what students of color were saying about how race impacted their academic experiences in and beyond the classroom.” In reaction to these discussions, 14 individuals from the LSA Undergraduate Education division, primarily directors and senior staff of undergraduate programs, formed the LSA Climate Committee. Since its inception, the committee has grown to include five subcommittees and has 50 active members, including nine students. The general committee aims to improve campus climate, resources and outreach efforts to ensure that all students, especially those who belong to underrepresented groups, feel welcomed at the University.

Horton, Kelly Maxwell, the co-director of the Intergroup Relations program, and Dr. Dwight Fontenot, associate director of the Comprehensive Studies Program, are three of 12 members of the Inclusive Pedagogies Committee, which creates classroom content, curricula and other resources to increase students’ and faculty’s understanding of social justice and intergroup dynamics. In the summer of 2015, the committee filmed a group of students simulating classroom modules that would help faculty design inclusive classrooms that will be published next fall. These videos, along with a record of comments from previous focus groups, surveys and other resources will be compiled into a database for faculty to access at any time.  

All committee members I spoke with are pleased that the committee has developed the videos, and have high hopes for its effectiveness and usability in transferring pedagogical tactics. However, the committee still faces several obstacles.

“The largest challenge is to move from theory to practice,” Fontenot said. “We have to convince faculty that developing inclusive classrooms leads to better scholarship and better classrooms. This is a very hard sell, especially in the STEM fields.”

STEM fields are not immune to the effects of a shortage of diversity. If anything, the undisguised gaps in diversity should compel STEM professors to ensure that there is an environment where all students feel comfortable asking questions, participating in study groups, and have the tools to communicate with diverse identities.

Interactions with professors are some of the most intimate that students have with the University in general. A student’s satisfaction with their academic experiences is largely shaped by the classes they take and the professors that have impacted their course of study.

The University’s mission statement says one of its goals is in “developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.” A professor has the crucial responsibility of advancing this mission statement, promoting critical thinking and transmitting knowledge to students. Creating inclusive spaces in the classroom is a perfect opportunity to do this.

In the process of developing leaders and citizens of the world, it is inevitable that uncomfortable and difficult conversations will transpire, especially if we hope to make any meaningful change. In a learning environment such as college, it is essential for future leaders to know how to navigate these conversations collaboratively, with respect and dignity. Classroom environments that install this framework build the foundations for academic and personal enrichment.

“Academic excellence can only happen when there are diverse voices at every table in the classroom space that are actually able to be a part of these classrooms,” Maxwell said. Committees like the Inclusive Pedagogies are imperative for students to show their best selves in the classroom, enriching the university environment they occupy.

Classroom management tactics are essential to creating inclusive spaces, but equally as important in transforming classroom spaces is the type of material from which students learn. A diversity of authors and scholarly works need to be integrated more frequently and intentionally in course syllabi. Academic scholarship from a diverse array of authors is imperative in enriching a diversity of viewpoints, experiences and cultures in the classroom. It is also encouraging and affirming for students to see their identity represented and acknowledged as notable work.

From my own classroom experiences, I wish some professors knew how to handle moments of tension and conflict in a classroom — how to encourage thoughtful commentary from students without jeopardizing their safety or well-being. I have been fortunate to have taken classes that have uplifted authors and scholars of various races and ethnicities, genders, socioeconomic backgrounds and sexualities, though I do not know if the same could be said for the majority of my peers.

I hope these videos will be widely utilized by faculty across departments and academic disciplines, and will not act as a static repository, but an evolving forum for sharing the best practices, which improves campus climate from the inside out. The Inclusive Pedagogies Committee’s active work to address diversity, equity and inclusion is an honest, collaborative effort to improve campus climate for everyone. Fontenot summed up how the University community can support the DEI initiative perfectly: “Having faculty, staff and students working together on these issues is the only way to build good solutions to the problems.”

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu. 

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