Teaching Toward Equity: Opening Doors to New Dialogues

Tufts students and faculty work closely together to create a new program that fosters inclusive teaching and learning
Langley Topper, Jillian Impastato, Kianie Ramirez, and Michelle Nguyen. Tufts students and faculty work closely together to foster inclusive teaching and learning in the new  Pedagogical Partnership Program
From left, Langley Topper, A21, Jillian Impastato, A21, Kianie Ramirez, E22, and Michelle Nguyen, A22, student facilitators in a program that pairs students with faculty to help give marginalized students a voice. Photo: Alonso Nichols
May 26, 2021

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In her sociology classes, Assistant Professor Anjuli Fahlberg, A07, often touches on sensitive and controversial subjects—racism, sexism, and many other types of discrimination. She’s wondered how that impacts her students, “especially those directly harmed by these inequities,” she said. “I try to make my classroom as inclusive as possible, but how do I know how the material is coming across to students?”

Kerri Modry-Mandell, senior lecturer in the Department of Child Study and Human Development, had similar concerns, especially this year as she was required to move her upper-level seminar to a virtual format.

“I always want to create a space where students felt comfortable enough to tell me what they need to enhance their learning and to support their overall well-being,” she said. Could she still achieve that openness with remote learning?

Both faculty share a philosophy that students have “unique histories, personalities, interests, and needs”—as Fahlberg says—and one that made them eager to participate in an innovative program this academic year.

They were among the first student-faculty teams to launch the Pedagogical Partnership Program, better known as P3, an initiative founded by two undergraduates, Jillian Impastato and Langley Topper, both A21, in a collaboration with the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT).

With support from a Springboard grant from the Tufts Office of the Provost and an award from Davis Educational Foundation, P3 began last fall with five faculty-student partnerships. This past semester, P3 expanded to 11 courses taught in the School of Arts and Sciences, the School of Engineering, and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Eleven partnerships are now being planned for the coming academic year.

Kayla Elliott, A23, and Anjuli Fahlberg, A07, assistant professor of sociology, a student-faculty P3 team, give each other a virtual high-five after a Zoom session. “Kayla offered lots of great suggestions about how to discuss harmful language to help quieter students feel more comfortable participating,” said Fahlberg.Annie Soisson, CELT director, said P3 is a timely addition to a comprehensive university commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in the classroom. Kindred CELT endeavors include a two-year collaboration between CELT and Tufts’ Institute for Research on Learning and Instruction (IRLI), as part of the same Davis Educational Foundation award.

“Listening to and centering student voices, especially historically marginalized students, and shifting the power dynamics of the faculty-student relationship is mutually beneficial to teaching, learning, equity and antiracism, which is our mission,” said Soisson.

Student and Faculty Working Together

As co-facilitators during P3’s first year, Impastato and Topper worked with CELT’s Ryan Rideau, associate director for equity and inclusion, to develop dialogues between faculty and student partners. Their goal: creating a welcoming and equitable learning experience for students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, gender identities, sexual orientations, religions, and learning differences.

Matching faculty and students, said Rideau, included making sure they shared similar goals and interests. “For example, if a faculty member is interested in increasing participation, we want to make sure they have a student who shares a similar interest,” he said. “We evaluate scheduling conflicts and course format, and we like to match students and faculty from different disciplines to further open up conversations and perspectives.”

Consistent feedback has been pivotal to the program’s success, he added, so throughout the semester, the student co-facilitators met weekly with all student partners as a group as well as monthly individually, while CELT staff hosted monthly meetings with faculty members. At the end of each semester, everyone comes together for evaluation and final reflection. 

The program derives critical momentum from motivated students like Michelle Nguyen, A22, a P3 student partner who is now carrying the program forward as a co-facilitator for the coming fall. For her, P3 gives her the means “to make sure that students don’t feel silenced and invisible,” she said. “Professors are not going to know what’s missing until someone says something about it, until they get an unbiased, student point of view.”

Two-time student partner Kayla Elliott, A23, who paired in the fall with Elizabeth Lemon, senior lecturer in religion, and in the spring with Fahlberg, also sees her role as an “extra voice for those students who are marginalized and felt they couldn’t speak up when they needed to and ask questions,” she said.  “And what is college for if you are not learning?”

Reciprocal Empowerment

“I feel inspired by the faculty who believe in helping Tufts move toward becoming a more antiracist institution,” said Langley Topper. “Sometimes In academia things can move slowly, but not this idea.” Photo: Alonso NicholsTopper and Impastato were motivated to propose the student-partnership model by what they saw around them. “Jill and I have strived to have conversations with professors, but during our time at Tufts, we came to realize that not all students are comfortable or feel that they have space to have similar conversations,” said Topper, adding that the anonymous, end-of-semester evaluations, standard for most classes, didn’t allow for real-time change or for dialogue.

“There weren’t enough pathways for students to engage in conversations with faculty about student needs, curriculum, the classroom space, and other aspects of learning,” she said.

Topper had learned about student-faculty partnerships through a friend at Oberlin, and from there turned to a pioneer in the field, Alison Cook-Sather, director of the Teaching and Learning Institute at Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges, and who in 2006 created Students as Learners and Teachers. With her mentorship, the Tufts students developed their pitch for Soisson last February.  “We wanted to be sure our idea was not framed as punitive,” said Impastato. “It was about faculty and student empowerment.”

Lauren Crowe, a lecturer in biology, enthusiastically said yes when approached by CELT to be part of P3 first faculty partner cohort last fall.

She teaches a large lecture class, Cells and Organisms, and as the introductory course traditionally has traditionally been taught, she believes it disproportionately affected marginalized students, by virtue of being such a large lecture—upwards of 400 students register—with a lot of ground to cover. “I want to create an environment where everybody feels like they have a path to success,” she said. “And everybody’s path is going to look different.”

Eve Abraha, who partnered with Crowe, agrees. She said her under-resourced K-12 education left her unprepared for the critical-thinking and problem-solving skills needed in STEM classes at Tufts. That failure was felt at the deepest level, she said. “Basically, what I heard is that ‘science is not for you—it’s too difficult.’ Students like me, including Black and Latinx and the first-gen kids—their dreams are crushed.” P3, she said, offered a path to a very different outcome.

Crowe took the opportunity of working with Abraha to revise her midterm survey, and this time ask for additional demographic information. “We wanted to see if there were aspects of the course that were especially benefiting or hindering marginalized students,” she said.

One insight surfaced around discussion board posts. Looking at the class overall, “students were not feeling super great about the discussion board posts; they said they were not very useful,” Crowe said. “But when we broke it down by various demographics, first-generation students, working students, and marginalized students were more likely to say that the discussion boards were helpful. And so to me, that was a big enough reason to keep them. That was really eye-opening.”

Responsive Listening

The observation of genuine caring was also one that left a deep impression on Abraha. She appreciated how Crowe sought to expand upon her inclusive practices in the class. “Instead of the usual big exams, she had many different ways of testing, from quizzes and quiz corrections to discussion boards, case studies and problem sets. I loved it. In addition to her lecture videos, she had different YouTube videos, some more visual heavy or more text heavy. She was perfecting her craft, which is awesome.”

P3 gives her the means “to make sure that students don’t feel silenced and invisible,” Michelle Nguyen said. “Professors are not going to know what’s missing until someone says something about it, until they get an unbiased, student point of view.” Photo: Alonso NicholsWhen the class ended, Abraha wrote to Crowe: “By making sure students like me are successful, you are ensuring that you’re one less reason that they want to give up on their dreams.” She added: “What could be more important?”

Fahlberg, the sociology professor, noted that her student partner, Kayla Elliott, “offered lots of great suggestions about how to discuss harmful language—like the use of the word “minority” vs. “minoritized”—to help quieter students feel more comfortable participating.” She also appreciates that Elliott is often a helpful sounding board.

“It is so helpful to hear what types of things help put students at ease,” she said. “One of the first things Kayla told me is how helpful it is to have a detailed syllabus, since it clarifies expectations and allows students to plan their semester. While I do have pretty detailed syllabi, I often worried students found them long and overly detailed, but it seems that in fact that’s been a useful approach. So I’ll keep doing that.”

Modry-Mandrell appreciated Nguyen’s perspective as she fine-tuned a mid-semester check-in that she traditionally uses. But this year she was teaching remotely, in a synchronous format. She wanted the check-in to try to get a sense of how the remote learning was working across the class of some 30 students.

Nguyen was instrumental in helping her design a “sensitive and inclusive survey,” she said. Nguyen also worked with Modry-Mandell to develop final project presentations on Zoom that were “mindfully crafted to support student engagement in a virtual-synchronous format,” said Modry-Mandrell.

As for Impastato and Topper, they are gratified to see the program gain traction quickly, and expect it will continue to grow as Soisson seeks further funding to make P3 part of the permanent fabric of the university.

“I feel inspired by the faculty who believe in helping Tufts move toward becoming a more antiracist institution,” said Topper. “Sometimes In academia things can move slowly, but not this idea.”

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.