Posted by: dacalu | 12 September 2015

Diversity and Teaching

In one of my job applications (for a professor position), I was asked how I would address issues of diversity in course materials and activities.  Because it started a great Facebook discussion, I thought I would post my final essay here.

[We are] committed to recruiting, hiring and supporting ethnically and culturally diverse faculty and to developing curriculum that emphasizes cultural competence and reconciliation.  Please respond to this statement by briefly describing how you would address issues of diversity (such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender) in course material and class sessions.

I watched a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She spoke on the danger of a single story – how we can become biased when we think of people and places only in terms of a single narrative: my poor neighbor or that oppressed country. I found this helpful in thinking about teaching and more broadly in thinking about both epistemology and Christian love. Diverse stories stir our curiosity, inviting us into deeper thought and more careful attention.

In teaching biology, I want to provide multiple stories to the students, encouraging them to create their own stories about the material. This starts with a conversation about what kinds of story make for good scientific work – generally concise, fruitful, concrete models of how a system works or how things fit together. They need not all agree with one another – but each needs to do a particular kind of work. It opens the door for students to discover their own ability to do science and encourages them to look for diverse positions on any topic. Where possible, I like to bring in examples of scientists with diverse backgrounds. I also want to introduce the idea that “we” as a class and “we” including all scientists are trying to tell a group of stories together so students can think about what that means, when it works, and when it might be challenging. Biology provides wonderful examples of dangerous ideology (Lysenkoism), misappropriation of science (eugenics), popular controversy (sex, gender, and orientation) and conflicting perspectives (adaptationism, levels of selection, biological altruism). We must think carefully about what work we expect it to do – and what work we don’t expect it to do.

The process requires diverse avenues for students to respond, as well. Studies suggest benefits to cold-calling students systematically and creating discussion spaces in which each student has an uninterrupted turn. I think free discussion can be invaluable, but it should be balanced with opportunities for students to prepare remarks. This can include short prepared reports, structured discussion, and scheduled meetings outside of class. It requires careful thought not only about the content of conversation, but the framework – issues such as not always calling on the first person to raise their hand, immediately stopping as hominem arguments, and rotating discussion/study partners.

One of the most important aspects for me is to be available to students as a person as well as a teacher and to reinforce the importance of their concerns and their perspective in achieving what will ultimately be their knowledge.

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