Texas shield logo

Fostering Inclusivity in Classrooms at UT and Beyond

Image of classroom

Image of classroomFor many students, roll call is a perfunctory chore they must endure before the daily lecture begins. They may not even realize that some of their 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 my name 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, according to Dr. Betty Jeanne Taylor, assistant vice president for inclusion and equity. What many instructors don’t realize, she says, is that the routine roll call can have a negative impact on students.

To prevent these ongoing stressors—also known as microaggressions—from affecting students in classrooms across the university, Taylor 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.”

Image of classroomLaunched in 2014 by the DDCE 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 the 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.”

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 the positive response—and the overwhelming number of people requesting a spot at the next seminar—there clearly is a need for this training, she says.

Recent participant Prisca Gayles now feels better equipped to talk about sensitive issues in her classroom. A big learning experience happened when she was discussing the topic
of human rights violations in Colombia. Unbeknownst to her at the time, she was inadvertently making a student feel singled out.

“I didn’t realize I was doing it, but when I talked about this topic I would look at a student who came from a military family in Colombia,” says Gayles, a doctoral student in the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies. “At one point he said, ‛Don’t look at me. I don’t know anything about that.’ That experience shows that we must always be reflective about how we talk about a specific topic in class.”

Josh Kopin, a doctoral student in the Department of American Studies, also began taking a more mindful approach to his teaching style after attending the seminar. His biggest takeaway was learning to keep his mind open to conflicting viewpoints.

“The more I reflect on perspectives that aren’t my own, the better I become as a teacher and as a person in general,” Kopin says. “When I think about why I’m feeling closed-minded about something, I always find my reasons to be lacking. The seminar emphasized how important this kind of reflection is.”

In fall 2016, the program opened up to faculty members with a new research component added to the curriculum. To date, more than 300 instructors from 50 different academic departments have completed the seminar. Although many of these instructors have left the university to pursue careers in academia, Taylor takes satisfaction in knowing that they are expanding the reach of the program in classrooms across the nation.

“People could say, ‘How does this impact our climate?’” Taylor adds. “Graduate students who are teaching assistants are graduating and leaving our university. But they’re not
considering the big picture. Current teaching assistants are impacting our campus climate through 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.”

Visit the Sociology Department’s  blog to read a graduate students’ perspective of the inclusive classroom training.