Building Bridges with Students
By Laura Ross
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Today, I had the honor of meeting several students who are Maryville Multicultural Scholars. Eight students and eleven faculty members met in Gander Hall to discuss the student perspective of Diversity and Inclusion in Maryville’s classrooms (also, they came for free lunch). The event was titled, “Faculty/Student Dialogues: Building Bridges.”
An eye-opening experience
To get started, Jesse Kavadlo asked us to form two groups: one faculty group and one student group. We were asked the question, “What do you think students need in terms of Diversity and Inclusion in the classroom?” The faculty group developed a list that included:
- Relatable cultural inclusivity examples
- A safe space so students feel comfortable reaching out to those outside of their own cultural group
- Support to underrepresented students so they feel they have a voice
The students shared their list with faculty after we settled back into one large group with faculty and students interspersed.
In describing their needs, the student list was not only more extensive, but their suggestions reflected years of experience and wisdom on the subject.
The student list
- Include current events from around the world in your class, regardless of your area
- Do not simply stick with the syllabus
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable
- Inform and prepare yourself as a faculty member to have challenging conversations on current events
- Challenge students directly when something rude or incorrect is said
- Get past surface level conversation
- Provide allyship to students who are the underrepresented
- Be supportive in the moment, not just in an email or pulling aside after class
- Establish a “brave” space
To summarize this list, students are looking for more authentic relationships with their professors including support. They hope that their professors will form more authentic relationships with world events, and incorporate conversations and assignments about those events into their classroom.
After the lists were shared, the students offered suggestions of how to provide the type of support they are seeking. Some were teaching styles they have experienced, and some were helpful ideas:
- Set the tone in class on the first day. Decide as a class what is acceptable and unacceptable language and behavior.
- While establishing the tone for your class, announce that your classroom is a “brave space” rather than a “safe space.” Everyone in your class will feel uncomfortable at some point in their lives, and your classroom will offer an opportunity for your students to sort through these feelings in a supported environment.
- Uncomfortable is not the same as “unsafe.”
- Professors should be prepared to correct rude, discriminatory, and factually incorrect comments in class. This approach is consistent with a recent statement made by Maryville University President Dr. Mark Lombardi:
“… I can assure our international students, Muslim students, Jewish and Christian students and all others regardless of faith, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, etc that Maryville will be a safe and secure place to express your views and live your lives. We will not tolerate anyone who attempts to violate that principle through word or deed that is clearly designed to demean or intimidate people based on their identity and humanity. Should you believe that such intimidation is occurring, please contact the multitude of resources available to you in Student Life, Academic Success and Academic Affairs including, but not limited to, our Office of Diversity and Inclusion, our International Student Services and our Center for Civic Engagement and Democracy among others.”
- Students would like support from professors when something outside of Maryville affects people of their cultural or racial group directly (ex: the travel ban on citizens of Muslim countries). Breaking the ice, and leading the elephant out of the room provides a sense of support for students who may be worried about their safety due to a particular event.
- While students do not want to be the “representative” of their particular racial, cultural, or religious group, the students agreed that acknowledgement is support. Remember that acknowledging that a student may be the “only” privately is generally considered supportive, not “singling out.”
- Encourage all students to prepare themselves on controversial issues before class time so students more educated on the topic are not constantly trying to teach other students.
- When having conversations that may seem challenging for students and/or faculty, deal in facts. Provide space and time for emotions, but separate the two for the sake for conversation. Give students context and examples that can explain a current event in a different light (ex: explain systematic racism using a video game analogy – white male is the lowest difficulty setting)
- If you know you will be discussing a topic that may be geared toward one particular group (ex: affirmative action and African American students), pull the student(s) in your class aside who may be underrepresented, and let them know that this may come up.
- When asked if approaching a student because of the color of their skin would be considered insensitive, the answer was, “Only if that is the first and/or only interaction you have with that student. Establish trust with all students in your class first, and students will appreciate the opportunity to prepare for potential awkward conversations in class.”
- Diversity and Inclusion is for everyone; being surrounded by a diverse student body is one of the perks of going to college! Encourage your students to attend Diversity and Inclusion events so they can take advantage of the college experience. This one may seem out of your scope of expectation: “How can I know what events are going on? Student Engagement is not my responsibility.” The uncomfortable conversations that faculty fear in the classroom would be minimized if students took responsibility for their own Diversity and Inclusion education. Perhaps you can offer extra credit for students who organize an outing, or announce campus events at the beginning of class.
The faculty group pointed out that losing control of the classroom and saying something offensive or wrong are very real fears. “This is one reason we might stay silent on an issue,” one faculty member pointed out. Another faculty member noted that she was so emotional during a current political topic, that she could not imagine opening up the door for the conversation. The students were understanding but not sympathetic. They feel that silence and avoidance are the same as lack of support. I interpreted their words to mean: instructors are still the authority figures in the room, and we are responsible for figuring out ways to meaningfully incorporate and discuss world events. Avoiding topics should not be an option.
The students during the “Faculty/Student Dialogues: Building Bridges” were so impressive and open; the faculty members were entirely engaged and ready to learn what these young people wanted to share.
- http://www.debbyirving.com/the-book/ (the CTL will reimburse you for this book)