The English department held an open-mic event on March 18 that gave students an opportunity to discuss experiences and issues they have had in the classroom regarding race. We commend the English department for acknowledging the effect campus racial climate on classroom learning experience, and for taking steps to effect change and improve race relations in the department. Other University departments should follow its example.
Departmental action is a proper response to student calls for racial equality on campus.
The #BBUM campaign in early November and the United Coalition for Racial Justice’s “Speak Out” event in the Shapiro Undergraduate Library in February demonstrated a need to address these issues. Facilitating open discussion in the classroom is the first step.
However, there are several other actions the University should take in order to create safer learning spaces. One of the main issues highlighted by the students at the open-mic event was poor facilitation of classroom dialogue by graduate student instructors and professors. All GSIs and professors of social science and humanities courses should undergo training comparable to that of intergroup dialogue facilitators to ensure heightened sensitivity to diverse perspectives. Instructors should also make a concerted effort to give students “trigger warnings” that alert them to upcoming class materials that could be potentially offensive, explicit or controversial.
Further, students should have the opportunity to anonymously evaluate courses and instructor performance at any time so that issues can come to light while there is still time to change instruction techniques. These evaluations could also be used to gauge students’ comfort level in class. All classes should take part of one day during the first few days of the semester, when syllabi are normally reviewed, to lay out the foundations for how students should approach sensitive issues in class. Additionally, departments should make a concerted effort to teach material written by people of diverse backgrounds in their classes.
Lastly, this effort to improve inclusivity and classroom safety through the alteration of group discussions, facilitations and curriculum material should be expanded to other social science and humanities departments. While it may be more difficult to make materials more accommodating in areas such as math, science and technology, all departments should make an effort to promote honest discussion about the improvements their students think instructors should be making to possibly influence campus racial climate.