LSA reviews Race and Ethnicity requirement

Sunday, January 24, 2016 - 6:58pm

In coordination with diversity initiatives on campus, LSA is reviewing the impact of the current race and ethnicity requirement.

In September 2015, University President Mark Schlissel announced goals for individual units to collaborate with faculty, staff and students to design Diversity, Equity and Inclusion plans, which in turn would be used to create a comprehensive, University-wide strategic plan.

LSA is currently in the process of gathering and analyzing data to better guide its DEI plan, which is due in mid-March. Angela Dillard, associate dean for undergraduate education, said  the college is focusing on reviewing the race and ethnicity requirement and the Comprehensive Studies Program, in particular, to improve access and equity on campus.

LSA junior Sean Pitt, CSG chief of staff and member of the R&E review committee, said the description of the requirement, where it addresses class focus, is vague.

“It provides a space in which faculty may be able to deviate from the intention of the requirement,” Pitt said.

The LSA website describes the R&E requirement as a course that “addresses issues that arise from racial or ethnic intolerance.” The classes must also satisfy two criteria: required content and required focus. The required content encompasses specific guidelines for the class, and the required focus calls for R&E courses to “devote substantial, but not necessarily exclusive, attention to the required content.”

The LSA R&E review committee — charged with investigating the R&E requirement and making recommendations — consists of nine faculty members, four staff members, two undergraduate students, one graduate student and one postdoctoral researcher. The goal is to understand students’ experiences and assess their learning within R&E courses, according to Dillard.

Dillard said the taskforce is conducting quantitative and qualitative research to inform recommendations. She cited focus groups, surveys, evaluation and administrative data, historical research and discourse analysis as examples of the research involved in such a process.

“We can’t make any recommendations about what to add until we have more data and evidence, and that’ll help to shape some of the things that we think we know,” Dillard said. “And sometimes what you think you know is just not born out in the data itself and you have to change your assumptions.”

This year, LSA also implemented several other methods to collect feedback and evaluate students’ experiences within R&E classes. On Jan. 11, students who fulfilled their R&E requirement in the fall received an e-mail from Dillard inviting them to participate in an online Canvas-based discussion of the race & ethnicity degree requirement.

As well, about 70 students attended two forums this fall to provide feedback on the R&E requirement. Pitt noted that most attendees spoke in favor of maintaining and strengthening the requirement. Their feedback largely fell into three main categories: course content, course structure and course support.

In terms of reforming course content, Pitt said many students at the forums expressed a desire for greater relevancy in their R&E classes. They favored content and courses focusing on issues of race and ethnicity applicable to society today.

“Our country and our campus is facing major issues with race and ethnicity, and it’s important that we’re able to take what we’re learning in a class dedicated to R&E and apply it to be able to interact in the society we’re living in today,” Pitt said.

The forums also brought to light issues of course structure, particularly course size. Pitt said participants preferred smaller courses to large lectures, but they were open to lectures if discussion sections adequately facilitated honest dialogue and nurtured a comfortable environment.

However, students also pointed out that GSIs may not always be properly able to lead such sensitive dialogues. Some suggested inviting a professional from Intergroup Relations to facilitate the initial discussion section if GSIs are not trained or prepared to do so.

“It’s important that if we are transitioning to a discussion-based format, then they need to be able to make sure that students are feeling comfortable and willing to speak on behalf of their experiences,” Pitt said.

Pitt also stressed a need for greater outside support for students, faculty and GSIs involved in R&E courses, proposing a concept similar to the Sweetland Writing Center.

“For the writing requirement, we have a center dedicated to providing students and faculty with support, and when it comes to the R&E courses where oftentimes people probably feel more uncomfortable addressing these issues, we have no real support for faculty or students,” Pitt said.

In conjunction with student feedback and data analysis, LSA has also recently implemented several measures to evaluate the efficacy of R&E classes.

Dillard said some instructors last semester included R&E-specific questions in their course evaluations.

These questions asked whether the meaning of race and ethnicity were important topics in this course, racial or ethnic intolerance in the United States or elsewhere was addressed in this course, comparisons of discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, social class or gender were key topics in this course and if the course devoted substantial attention to race and ethnicity content. An open-ended question also asked students to comment on how their understanding of race and ethnicity has changed throughout the course.

“All of this stuff tells a story,” Dillard said. “The important part is not just the data, but it’s that the data can then inform recommendations and different things we might want to do.”

This semester, Dillard said a form of embedded assessments will be implemented in six courses. Instructors will administer pre-tests and post-tests to measure learning gains and outcomes.

“This is a much more elaborate way of trying to measure student learning,” Dillard said. “We need groups of students filling this out at the beginning and filling it out again at the end, and that you use the different results to measure how much student learning has happened from the beginning of the class to the end of the class to answer the question ‘Did taking this R&E class matter?’”

Dillard also noted the upcoming Plan-A-Thon Week. The event aims to encourage students to submit ideas to be included in the LSA DEI Plan to improve the R&E requirement, with workshops to help students develop an ideas into a strategic plan.

“We want to help people figure out how to ask those kinds of questions and who to go to as a resource for being able to put their ideas in action,” Dillard said. “For people who really want to see their idea implemented, we want to help them build the capacity and give them the support to really be able to do a good and serious job.”

But before Plan-A-Thon Week or any new initiatives, faculty, Pitt and Dillard said staff and students continue to work together to revamp current DEI programs.

“I just think that it’s really important for the college of LSA and the rest of the University to take a hard look at the opportunity that we have here with the R&E requirement,” Pitt said. “Originally we were ahead of the curve in introducing such a requirement, but now, it’s important to keep up with the times and make sure that we’re advancing our discourse on issues of R&E in a setting that is more conducive to the environment that we currently live in.”