CONVERSATION FOR CHANGE: Academic Experience

February 4, 2016

Notes from Small-Group Discussion Rounds

The faculty have responsibility to introduce the topic of various sorts of diversity.  Diversity at NYU includes cultural, racial, ethnic, economic, gender, sexual orientation.  The word diversity means different things to different persons. A theme discussed was raising awareness.

Do we acknowledge student diversity?  And if acknowledged, what kind of assumptions do we bring?  Do NYU students make assumptions about their economic diversity (or lack thereof)?  Do professors make similar assumptions (eg. organizing a field trip when some students may need to work)?  How do professors acknowledge their own limitations in terms of identity and expertise?

Importance of introducing the idea that class discussions start without making assumptions about students, their preparation for discussion, etc; addressing diversity issues that are often omitted, and not making assumptions.  

It is empowering for students to have equal access to all topics discussed in the course.  Relying on student identity to speak for course content is a problem.  Faculty should be sensitive and ask how identity might aid discussion of the course content.  Instructors can bring in as wide a range of perspectives as possible to allow students to express themselves.

“Sums”: everyone brings a body of experience, another way of thinking about diversity (beyond cultural). An important objective is to de-stigmatize students relating to their distinct cultures.

“Challenge by Choice”: if students are comfortable in talking about or sharing their diverse experiences, provide space for it, but do not create expectations that students represent particular experiences.  A particular mistake professors can make is asking students on the spot for information about their culture.

What does “taking full advantage of the diversity” mean?  Is this the right diction/statement?  It has a potentially negative connotation.  Recognizing students’ individual backgrounds, but not putting them on the spot, is important (eg. where are you from? where do you call home? what languages other than English do you speak?).  Instructors should create a safe space for students to share

   >A possible reinterpretation of the question: How do we bring minority students to the fore, and without putting a “spotlight” on the student?

Should we dispense with the term “diversity”?  As long as we focus on representation, it may be bound to fail; a representational approach is problematic for students and the curriculum.  Coverage is challenging.  How do we shift the paradigm, to rethink the approach to curriculum design in order to accomplish something better than tokenism?

  >A possibility might be to teach clusters/groups of texts that comment on one another, and/or teaching from lenses other than the Western perspective.  

  >Of particular note, it was observed only one class had a text written by a woman author; and a student shouldn’t have to search for inclusion.

  >Move away from the word “diversity” and create a progressive curriculum based on equity, justice, etc; rather than simply “representative” texts

The question for discussion already privileges diversity.  Do students who feel they don’t specifically contribute to diversity feel left out/alienated? It seems important to not leave the identities of white Americans unmarked.  A possible approach may be to ask about identity on the first day of classes, allowing identity to be something voluntarily revealed over time, but not required.  Faculty should create openness, and create a container for the classroom.

Professors can also approach materials as arising out of a set of shifting cultural contexts.  Diversity itself could be examined as a concept; being self-aware about the varied values one might place on a concept.

Another concern is the diversity of books/texts used in the classroom.  Faculty should be accountable to learning more about writers of color, allowing students to help select texts, readjust parameters on the notions of history and culture (not merely “West & the Rest”).

Students expect professors to know and teach three centuries of global histories/cultures; the terms “social foundations” and “cultural foundations” themselves are problematic.  The cultures of the traditionally voiceless and underrepresented should be taught.  There should also be discussion about why we take these courses, and course descriptions that are more accessible and clear.

Another important topic was the power dynamics with professors.  Faculty want to hear about student experiences, but how can faculty better empower students?  Professors should address socio-economic, political and other forms of diversity through dialogue and debate.

  > “I wonder why…” Asking students to clarify, and decrease the extreme disparity in the power dynamic

Notes from Large Group Discussion

What do we mean by diversity?  There are different types of diversity, including gender, political, economic, religious, and more.  Some forms of diversity are visible, though others are not.

How can instructors recognize and respect the power differential between students and professors, inviting the student experience without situating them as a “spokesperson” or representative.  Crafting a curriculum is an intricate process for faculty, but we should discuss how to invite students to shape the curriculum without making assumptions and while respecting identities.  The concepts of openness, inclusion and safety were offered as values, but without projecting onto students or otherwise silencing students. How can instructors create such safe and open spaces?

Professors have to avoid assumptions about students, or an expectation that students need to disclose insights about their culture, or even presumed to have knowledge about a particular culture.  To support this, questions should be open-ended (Who, if any student, wants to contribute to this conversation, or would like to speak on this topic?).  The professor does not have to present as an authority on every subject, and likewise shouldn’t expect students to speak as authorities either. In addition, some come from cultures where students are less encouraged to speak in classrooms.  A possible technique may be to include more small group exercises and discussions, which can help bring more students into peer & faculty connections.

A suggestion offered was to use these dimensions (race, class, gender, nationality, etc) as categories of analysis, rather than topical subjects or topics to be learned independently.

Do professors need to share their own identities? It can be important and affirming to reinforce that we are all a mixture of histories & cultures, enmeshed in multiple identities (including self-defined identities). It may increase the comfort and accessibility of faculty in the classroom, and model how we each define our own identity.  Some self-awareness of their perspective, and even the nature and impact of perspective, matters.

The power dynamic between student and professor was discussed.  Often the professor is positioned as the authoritative figure, but may not be the ultimate authority in every topic or discussion. How instructors position themselves to students is important; not merely as an authority figure, but someone who creates & co-creates an academic space for students to share experiences and knowledge.  A concept mentioned was “challenge by choice,” allowing students to volunteer or contribute their cultures to classroom discussions, incorporating the notion of consent.

The pedagogical approach of seminars (inquiry-based teaching and engagement) should theoretically improve the power dynamic, often a preferable format to lectures where knowledge is usually “transplanted”  into students.

The phrasing of the question was also problematized (ie, “taking full advantage”), since it presumably puts diverse students on the spot.  How do we want to describe what we are attempting to accomplish? There are semantic differences between diversity and inclusion, but do we aspire for both/neither?  The term “inclusion” may be obliging, suggesting the effort to add back what was intentionally left out.  And the term “diversity” is often coded and loaded as fitting in persons of color, situating persons of color within an exclusionary (and binary) framework.  Rather than inclusion or diversity for its own sake, we might instead consider an emphasis on “equity.”

Cultural Foundations & Social Foundations are difficult concepts to define.  These are both interpreted and based on the Western canon.  A more conscious emphasis on “global” throughout the curriculum (rather than reinforcing Western ideas of “foundation”) may mitigate some of the hierarchical values in a core curriculum.  Of course, the phrase “foundation” does not necessarily have to be understood as inherently or essentially Western, and could itself be reimagined.  What is actually foundational about all cultures is the meeting of cultures, informed and shaped by these intersections with each other.  These are moments of convergence and shared influence.  How people meet and create culture is a useful framing, rather than geographic coverage or chronological distribution.  Such an approach potentially allows presentation of cultures equitably, without privileging one or another. The binary terms of Western and non-Western are also problematic.  The interaction of cultures is continuous and important, and we should not study texts serially and discretely without connecting back; we should allow for the full interchange of these texts, as much in conversation with others as culture itself.  

The faculty have a mandate to teach both CF and SF with a global content.  The content has been modified over time to be more global than previously, but presumably needs further consideration.

A staff member commented on her particular subject position, recognizing differences in understanding between conversations with students and faculty.  At times, there appears to be some distinction between the content intended by faculty and what students actually derive from the class. Have the approach and intent more conspicuous to students, and more consistently global, might help.