GEO looks to inclusive teaching, Spencer negotiations in the new year

Wednesday, January 3, 2018 - 7:26pm

After contentious contract bargaining last winter, the University of Michigan Graduate Employees’ Union has focused much of its efforts on equity across its membership of more than 1,800 graduate student instructors, research assistants and staff members. Last year's contract hinged upon the hiring of graduate student assistants working solely on execution of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plan. In the new year, GEO looks towards issues of race and class, both inside and outside of the classroom. 

The Michigan Daily spoke with GEO president Rachel Miller, a Rackham student, to discuss initiatives including inclusive teaching, and whether or not GEO members will be on campus during a potential visit from white supremacist Richard Spencer.

Inclusive Teaching Network Releases Guide for Instructors

GEO released a statement on its Facebook page Tuesday night encouraging their members to look into new resources from the Inclusive Teaching Network and implement them into their classrooms.

“Whether these ideas are new to you or you're very familiar with inclusive teaching, we encourage you to share these documents widely!” the post read.

The Inclusive Teaching Network, a new University group comprised of faculty, graduate students and activists, works to make classrooms more supportive for marginalized students. In the wake of a spate of racist attacks and bias incidents on campus in the last two years, many students have decried professsors' lacking engagement in the classroom.     

“We aim to promote a culture of accountability in upholding our commitments to practicing anti-racist, anti-queerphobic, accessible, and radically inclusive pedagogies,” the group’s Facebook page reads.

While the Inclusive Teaching Network had not yet responded to interview requests at the time of publication, the ITN teaching guidelines—a document shared on the GEO Facebook page—included advice on handling and preventing issues that might come up before the first day of, and throughout the semester. 

“An inclusive classroom is cultivated over time by taking regular, deliberate steps towards creating equitable access for all students to meet high standards for learning,” the document states. “This doesn’t mean you have to know everything about what is ‘correct’ for working with different identity groups. Rather, true inclusivity means working to understand and provide for the real learning needs of all individuals in the room.”

The document highlights the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching as another important source for instructors interested in learning more about inclusive teaching. Indeed, Theresa Braunschneider, associate director and coordinator of diversity initiatives at the CRLT, said the center has prioritized promoting inclusivity in the classroom over the last few years.  

“We know that students’ feelings of recognition and belonging are strongly correlated to their ability to learn,” Braunschneider wrote to The Daily in an email interview. “When we define inclusive teaching at CRLT, we emphasize the importance of all students feeling valued and respected and the ways that systemic inequities (such as racism, sexism, wealth inequity) and patterns of bias (such as homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, etc.) create disparate experiences for different students.”

Students have complained classroom biases—across colleges and departments on campus—can disrupt learning. Last summer, Engineering graduate student Aeriel Murphy recounted sexist comments by her professors. 

“It wasn’t until I was an undergrad that it really started to affect me,” Murphy said. “My senior year of college, I had a professor say to the class, ‘don’t let the women be in the same group together because women have a hard time getting things done.’” 

In the past, the CRLT has focused on supporting teachers through the process of making their classrooms into more equitable environments. Most of this work has been done through workshops, both embedded in departments and open to any faculty. The CRLT also works with Liaisons for Inclusive Teaching from each of the University’s 19 schools to help them develop school-specific programs.

Graduate Student Instructor programs also exist, and according to Braunschneider, all GSIs who attend the CRLT’s teaching orientations at the beginning of the term — about 800 every year — are offered inclusivity training. Beyond that, many departments require GSIs to take a pedagogy course, often in collaboration with the CRLT. Though the resources created by the Inclusive Teaching Network are not explicitly related to the CRLT, Braunschneider explained many of the ideas in the document came from CRLT workshops, and some of the people involved in the materials’ creation work for them as GSI consultants.

Though inclusive teaching has been a priority of the CRLT for many years now, Braunschneider said the University community has recently begun to take it more seriously.

“Partly inspired by student activism, partly prompted by DEI strategic planning efforts led by the University administration, and partly in response to an increasingly hostile climate for people of many identities both on our campus and more broadly in our country, we’ve seen a huge increase in recent years in faculty commitment to and interest in learning about inclusive teaching — across all disciplines,” she wrote. “We’re really busy, and that’s a good thing! ... We regularly revisit how we frame inclusive teaching and prepare instructors across many fields to teach inclusively, so our materials dynamically evolve in relation to the work we’re doing with faculty and GSIs.”

GEO negotiates not working the day of potential Spencer visit

The Graduate Employees’ Organization is working to excuse graduate student employees from a working day if Spencer, an avowed white nationalist, speaks on campus. The specific day he will visit is still undecided, though Spencer's lawyers have requested space during spring break. Spencer's lawyers set a deadline of Jan. 15 for the University to determine a date, though administrators' negotiations remain largely under wraps

GEO president Rachel Miller said the safety of graduate student employees is their utmost concern.

“Our priority is making sure our members, graduate student instructors and graduate student staff, are safe at work,” Miller said. “We also believe that it's the instructors who are best equipped to assess their own safety regardless of what kind of actions are taken by the University. The instructor knows their own safety best.”

Miller said though the University promises to implement protective measures during Spencer’s visit, the increased the number of police on campus could also have adverse effects on some members.

“For some of our members, the militarized police presence doesn’t make them feel any safer,” Miller said.

While negotiations are still tentative, Miller said the GEO is in near constant communication with University Human Resources, and more discussion on this topic is sure to come.

“Nothing is determined, but I can definitely say that there are contractual workplace protections for graduate student employees,” she said.