Teaching Toward Equity: When Professors Become Students of Antiracism

Faculty spend a semester having the ‘uncomfortable’ conversations, with the goal of more inclusive classrooms
A row of multi-ethnic and multi-racial hands holding up speech bubbles.
Talking about diversity and antiracism can be hard, even for college faculty. “It was really helpful to be in the role of a student” during Tufts’ Equity and Inclusion Fellows Program, said associate professor Laura Gee. Illustration: Shutterstock
October 5, 2021

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Part of an occasional Tufts Now series on how faculty are integrating issues of racial and social justice into the curricula, an integral part of a university-wide strategy to dismantle systemic racism. Read more about Teaching Toward Equity on Tufts Now.

Initially, Associate Professor Laura Gee didn’t understand why the Equity and Inclusion Fellows Program she participated in this past spring required so much reflection. She didn’t object to the prompts and exercises—she just thought she’d signed up for something else.

“My first thought was, ‘How is this going to help me create a more diverse classroom? Because this class seems to be all about my personal growth, when I was expecting it would be about skills for teaching students,’” said Gee, who teaches economics in the School of Arts and Sciences. She participated in the program because she had served on her department’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee and wanted formal training in the field.

Then, she realized the value of the program’s reflection exercises, especially of doing them as a Fellows program student in a virtual classroom setting. Gee usually voices her opinions easily, but worried about sharing her thoughts on the thorny issues enmeshed with equity and inclusion. “It was really helpful to be in the role of a student in that setting and realize, ‘I’m someone who goes to school for a living, and I feel awkward talking about this.’” 

A deeper dive

Gee was one of 17 faculty members to participate in the equity and inclusion program, which was created and led by Ryan Rideau, associate director of Tufts’ Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching (CELT), in collaboration with Assistant Director Heather Dwyer. Launched at the beginning of the spring 2021 semester, the program grew from CELT’s multi-day Inclusive Learning Institute.

“We noticed that the participants needed a little more time to process information, to try out new ideas,” Rideau said. “We wanted to try to move toward a different model that would allow for more in-depth discussion, more reflection, and more opportunity to develop, design, and try things. It can be uncomfortable at first.”

The inaugural group met weekly (with a few exceptions) via Zoom through the semester to reflect on personal and field-specific bias, and to equip faculty to better include students of all social identities, with a focus on antiracism.

Faculty came from a wide swath of Tufts departments and campuses, with STEM-related fields particularly represented. Before the course, participants read about antiracist pedagogy and universal design for learning. Journal writing and online forum prompts encouraged personal reflection—which could be challenging and vulnerable. Rideau and Dwyer realized this while designing the program.

“We already felt like the odds were stacked a little bit against us because we were meeting remotely,” Dwyer said. “We wanted to ensure that there was space for small group conversations in consistent groups, so there was truly a feeling, as much as possible, of connection and community among the participants.” Having groups of four to five people set the stage for change-yielding dialogues.

For chemistry Professor Joshua Kritzer, the most “mind-altering” moment of the program was when Tufts students shared their classroom experiences. “Hearing a student explain why they didn’t feel like they belong in your field because of the things that the professor did in the classroom is really powerful,” he said.

One student described the common teaching practice of waiting five to 10 seconds, then calling on a student who’d already raised their hand, discussing their answer, then moving on. The message was that students who couldn’t answer within five to 10 seconds were behind. “Things like that added up to a general feeling like the class—and the larger field—didn’t ‘belong’ to you, if you couldn’t keep up in that moment,” Kritzer said.

Later, during the Decolonizing the Curriculum unit, “it really came to a head,” he recalled. “Racist assumptions may be challenging to uncover in the natural sciences,” he said, “How do you decolonize a natural sciences curriculum, where you’re focused on the natural world and how it works?” 

Through the workshop, he learned many ways to decolonize a natural science class. One was to highlight Black chemists who succeeded despite historic racism. It also means noticing that many chemical reactions bear the names of their discoverers, rather than the chemical phenomenon they illustrate. A decolonized curriculum highlights “the cool stuff in nature that we’re teaching about, and deemphasizes the people who happened to discover it, because the people who discovered it were put in that position because of societal structures,” he said. 

“I think there was a lot of surprise or unexpected learning that happened,” Rideau said. “Disciplines that had historically been seen as neutral when it comes to issues around race, equity, and inclusion—it’s debunking that myth around neutrality.” 

Practical applications

The program also focused on what Kritzer called “nuts and bolts.” All participants designed an antiracist syllabus, and learned about building an inclusive learning environment, constructing difficult dialogues and creating equitable assessments. “That is where some of the opportunities for testing new ideas and getting feedback came in,” Rideau said. 

Faculty also implemented their learning in their own classrooms. Assistant Director of the Center for Animals and Public Policy Emily McCobb learned that by taking roll, “You are immediately assuming the pronunciation of students’ names; you might be assuming their pronouns; you might be assuming a lot of things by just going down the list of names.” 

A clinical associate professor at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, she now invites students to introduce themselves, rather than taking roll. McCobb also realized that the Socratic method, which involves a question-based dialogue between the teacher and students and is frequently used in the veterinary and other medical fields, “might not work for people from all backgrounds or with all learning styles,” she said. 

Along the way, McCobb noticed a gap between her own diversity and inclusion experience and the program’s starting point. “I often felt like I was missing the introductory knowledge,” she said. “I have expertise in taking care of pets, and anesthesiology, but I don’t have a lot of expertise in history and the cultural norms that some of the people in the social sciences are already steeped in.” 

Dwyer said this was not unusual among some participants. “Sometimes participants were left wondering ‘Why is this our role, and what exactly is our role in this?’” she said, while others worried why bias and inequity in higher education so problematic. “And that’s not something that we address deeply in the program,” Dwyer said. Now, she’s developing a new program to help faculty more thoroughly understand oppression and racism in higher education. 

Not new topics

For its part, economics hasn’t been particularly diverse, said Gee: “It’s white, male, able-bodied, cisgendered.” Yet those in the field have studied an array of topics. “There’s a diversity of topics, but there’s much less of a diversity of authorship in economics,” she said.

Gee wanted to showcase the work of authors from different backgrounds but because there were so few, that felt difficult. “The program really helped me figure out ways to incorporate those voices into my teaching,” she said. While Gee has adapted her approach to teaching, she hasn’t changed the content of her class; she still covers the same topics, without new additions.

 “You don’t have to become an expert in topics about diversity, you just have to become more open to teaching the topic you already know a lot about in a more inclusive way,” she said.

The next Equity and Inclusion Fellows Program will take place during the spring 2022 semester. Registration will open this fall; for details, see the CELT website

Heather Beasley Doyle is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Mass.