Karen Miller, a psychology graduate student instructor, recalls that one of her best teaching moments came when a student in her class on U.S. cities in the 20th century asked why race factored much into the discussion.
“Another student raised her hand and said it was because we were learning how race and struggles over racial identities had played a significant role in shaping U.S. cities,” Miller said. “It was great because we then started a debate about it, and the first student was ultimately convinced.”
In the lawsuits challenging its race-conscious undergraduate and law admissions policies, the University has built its defense on the premise that diversity is essential to higher education. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to make a decision by the end of June.
In its briefs, the University refers to experiments done by former psychology Prof. Patricia Gurin in 1997 showing that students who interacted with diverse groups gained more benefits because they were challenged to think in new ways.
“What happens when students hit Michigan with the level of diversity we have? It’s different, it’s discrepant, it’s novel,” she said. “We did find (that) the more students have actually interacted with diverse peers, the more by the senior year they were doing active thinking.”
Professors and students like Miller said they think diversity is beneficial in classroom discussions mainly because most people come from primarily homogeneous communities.
“Students, through no fault of their own, have grown up in homogeneous communities and lack the skills to take advantage of the cultural richness of the University,” Psychology lecturer Charles Behling said. “It requires more than good will to be able to communicate across cultural differences.”
Other GSIs noticed challenges when dealing with sensitive issues.
“I have to engage the students,” English GSI Claire Counihan said. “I have to push the white students more when the material deals with slavery and prejudices.”
Miller added that minority students bring other critical skills even when they might not be the best writers or readers.
“The world is clearly not designed for their consumption (and) it is easier for them, in general, to think critically about it,” Miller said. “While more privileged students often pride themselves on their cynicism, they have a hard time figuring out how to be analytical.”