The racist incidents I mentioned in the this post have, probably rightly, absorbed a good deal of administrative time and energy. One response has been to go a bit more deeply into climate and, more generally, equity issues on campus. The provost’s office recently asked departments (very nicely!) to plan events around the rubric of ‘equity and diversity’.
But, what should a department do, when asked to plan a response to equity and diversity issues? A number of colleagues went straight to talking about the racist and hate and bias incidents themselves. Fair enough, although if every department ran events on how to deal with racist incidents that might produce a fair bit of redundancy. I wanted at least some departments to focus on addressing what I think is an unduly neglected equity issue: the uneven, and in a significant number of cases downright poor, quality of instruction on the campus. I also believe that high quality instruction (with instruction broadly understood to include mentoring) can even counteract some of the effects of the kinds of incidents under the spotlight, by affecting the climate within which students encounter those incidents.
Let me give you three examples.
First, suppose that you are a student from a disadvantaged background, and you have to fulfill the various quantitative reasoning (i.e., basically, math) requirements that any Bachelors degree at an R1 requires (see Lesson Plan). If you are from a disadvantaged background you are more likely than the average student to have received poor quality math instruction in high school, and less likely to have received compensatory tutoring from your parents or from personal tutors. If the university has assigned highly skilled and experienced instructors, who are invested in your success, to teaching the basic math classes you are required to take, this has three advantages for you. First, you will learn more math which, presumably, is to your benefit. Second, you are more likely to pass, and more likely to pass with a better grade, thus affecting your success in future competitions within and beyond the university (for example, the competition to become a Business or Nursing major, which are decided in substantial part by your GPA). Third, because of the first two advantages, you are significantly less likely to drop out of college. Now, imagine that, instead, the college assigns people to teach the class who are not skilled in teaching math to students like you, and either have little investment in your success, or have limited opportunities to improve through professional development (or both). Perhaps, for example, the instructor is a graduate student who struggles to speak non-technical English, was selected for graduate school because of their research potential rather than their teaching skills, and has strong incentives to focus on research rather than improving as a teacher. In this case you are going to do worse, get a worse grade, learn less, and be more likely to drop out. The students more likely to succeed in that classroom are those whose high school preparation was better, and those who have access to private tuition of some sort. The lower the level of the class, the more vivid the equity issues. Who is teaching development or remedial math classes on your campus, and how skilled are they?
Second, suppose you want to become a doctor, or a nurse. We have a Physics course taught in a large lecture format, and graded on a curve, in which you need to succeed in order to have a shot at the Nursing program. And, of course, there’s Organic Chemistry (Medical school). If those courses are taught by skilled instructors, invested in student success, with plenty of commitment to and opportunities for improving their practice as instructors, everyone has something like a fair shot. If not… again, the playing field is tilted to those who have enjoyed better science instruction in high school, a resource that is not distributed equally across classes or races. And consider the consequences of not getting into the Nursing program. It is still possible to become a nurse. But, typically, first one has to complete one’s degree (having found some other major, and often this may involve an extra semester of school), and then one has to spend an extra year or two in school. Lower income students, already $50-75k in debt, have to forgo earnings for an extra year or two, and go still further into debt. Lets say $50k for two years of forgone earnings, plus $40k in tuition—that’s $90k incurred costs—all for the want of a skilled Physics teacher in a gatekeeping course.
My third imagined case (not that any of these three cases have taken great leaps of imagination given that they are all based on the experiences of actual people) is a bit different. Suppose you are a Latina, first generation, students and you come to U.W. Madison as a first year, feeling naturally a little anxious about college, being a minority for the first time, and naturally somewhat unsafe because you know about the incidents I referred to in the previous post. And you land in classes of 200 students, none of whom you know, almost all of whom are white. Now imagine that the professors and TAs are skilled at forging bonds between students, so that they approach learning as a collaborative task; you are compelled to talk with other students about the material, and they are compelled to talk with you, and the professors and/or TA’s take time to have a brief personal conversation with you once in a while (as well as being skilled teachers of the material you are studying, so that you feel increasing confidence in your command of it, and a sense of belonging in the institution). My conjecture (and that’s all it is) is that, whatever transpires in terms of racist behaviours beyond the classroom, you are more likely to learn academically, more likely to feel confident, more likely to feel that you can approach professors when dealing with setbacks, and generally more likely to succeed than if your professors and TAs, even if skilled in general at teaching the material, are not skilled at creating an environment that makes you feel as welcome and safe as the students who come to a place like this as if it is their birthright. And much more likely than if they are not even skilled in teaching the material.
My department has responded to the call to plan events concerning equity and diversity by instituting a regular series of meetings for faculty and TAs on improving instruction. Of course, we don’t control crucial gate-keeping courses like OChem. But some first generation, low-income and minority students (the lucky ones) take our courses, and one of our courses (baby logic) meets one of the QR requirements. And several of us participate in the First Year Interest Group program I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the students in which are disproportionately non-white and non-affluent. The better and more inclusive our teaching, the more effectively we counteract background inequities. And we can do so without a cost to the more advantaged students at our institution. So far the meetings have been well-attended (including (importantly) by senior colleagues), productive, and frankly invigorating. It is particularly good to have both faculty and graduate students in the room together—each meeting has featured a joint presentation by a faculty member and a graduate instructor, addressing some specific problem of instruction, and one of the benefits has been that joint deliberation. That said, as always, I’d welcome suggestions for sessions we might organise, or for curricular tools that might already exist for our professional development. And, of course, I’d urge other departments on my campus (I know CT gets readers from several of our departments—including Math!) to follow our example!