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Fostering Inclusivity in Classrooms at UT and across the Nation

image of students

image of students

For many students, roll call is just another perfunctory chore students have to get through before embarking on the daily lecture. They may not even realize that some of their fellow classmates are feeling anxiety when the instructor rattles off the list of names.

“Will he pronounce my name correctly, or even come close?” “Will the students laugh if she butchers it completely?” Those questions often run through the minds of students during this standard classroom procedure.

These common occurrences may seem innocuous enough, but the stress can take its toll, says Dr. Betty Jeanne Taylor, assistant vice president for inclusion and equity. What many instructors don’t realize, she says, is that routine roll call can have a negative impact on students.

To prevent these ongoing stressors—also known as micro-aggressions—from affecting students in classrooms across the university, she leads a seminar that gives instructors practical tools for fostering a welcoming environment. The goal, in large part, is to interrupt non-inclusive experiences in the classroom before they become commonplace.

 “When these situations are normalized, that’s problematic,” Taylor says. “When discriminatory acts become the norm and people shrug it off and say, ‘Well, that’s just how it is,’ the problem gets rooted deeper within our campus culture.”

Launched in 2014 by the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement and the Graduate School, the Inclusive Classrooms Leadership Certificate Seminar, is divided into two parts. The first session covers the elements of the inclusive classroom and explores campus climate, diverse identities and self-reflection. On the second day, participants explore various forms of bias incidents in everyday classroom scenarios and brainstorm proactive measures for preventing these incidents before they happen.

“The goal is to help instructors consider the design of their courses from a variety of perspectives to better support students,” Taylor says. “Even from a national perspective, we know that this is an essential part of being an educator.  If you want to be a leader in academia, you’re going to need these skills.”

image of class Developed by Taylor, the seminar began as a series, with two pilots conducted during the 2012-2013 academic year with teaching assistants from the College of Communication and the College of Fine Arts.  Taylor often hears from participants who were able to put their skills to good work in classrooms at UT Austin and across the nation. Based on their positive response—and the overwhelming amount of people requesting a spot at the next seminar—there is clearly a need for this training, she says.

“People email me and say that a situation we addressed in a seminar came up in class, and that they knew how to handle it because of what they learned in the seminar,” she adds.  “I’ve also heard from people who say that they used the information they learned literally the next day. When they tell me they are better prepared, that’s what’s most rewarding for me because I know that preparation will improve experiences for students.”

After faculty feedback was generated through focus groups, the seminar was offered as a pilot to faculty members from four colleges within the university. Faculty members participated in a meeting in October 2016 and have requested to meet again in spring 2017. The next faculty seminar will also be offered in spring. Adding to the curriculum, Taylor includes a research-based visual aid “Intersections of Identities,” from her book chapter, co-authored by Dr. Ryan Miller and Dr. Claudia Garcia-Louis.  The model displays multiple identities (i.e. sexual orientation, race, first language, disability) that are subject to institutional oppression. Using this model, participants explore their own perspectives and the importance of reflecting upon multiple perspectives throughout courses.

To date, more than 300 instructors from 50 different academic departments have completed the seminar. Many have left the university to pursue careers in academia. And though they are no longer at the Forty Acres, Taylor says she takes satisfaction in knowing that they are expanding the reach of the program in classrooms across the nation – thus fulfilling the university’s mission statement, “What Starts Here Changes the World.”

“People could say, “How does this impact our climate? Graduate students who are teaching assistants are graduating and leaving our university.’” she says. “But they’re not considering the big picture. Current teaching assistants are impacting our campus climate by their role in our classrooms as educators. And when they leave our university, they are taking what they learned and creating inclusive classrooms across the country.

Top photo by Marsha Miller