The times may be frightening but we live in a teachable moment.
-Fox, 2017, p. xvii
We -- staff and faculty of the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning -- begin this newsletter with the acknowledgement and juxtaposition of horror and hope. In the midst of a pandemic that has disproportionately impacted People of Color, we name the senseless yet calculated and systematic murders of Black women, men and trans* people, most recently: Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and Breonna Taylor.
We also hold onto the “deep hope” that classrooms are sites of social transformation. Brown professor Andre Willis (Religious Studies) defines “deep hope” as a “generous present disposition toward the future...It is an outgrowth of despair, not its enemy.” While holding onto the deep hope for teaching and learning to be an agent of positive change, we also acknowledge that educational institutions have historically been sites of harm and emotional toll, particularly for students and faculty of color (Hurtado, Cuellar, Guillermo-Wan, 2011; Pittman, 2010; Smith, 2002).
Here, we outline five key starting points of anti-racist classrooms, designed to magnify the transformative impact of education but also to mitigate the negative harm. Borrowing from Kendi’s (2019, p. 18) definition of anti-racist policy, we define “anti-racist teaching” as intentional syllabus design, class content, or pedagogy that creates or develops racial equity, with applications for face-to-face and remote/hybrid teaching environments. We also commit to incorporating these principles into our own practice, in our work to support teaching and learning at Brown.
In use of terms throughout this newsletter, our intent is not to be dismissive of the particular harm on Black people and communities. Therefore, we wish to note that throughout, when quoting or paraphrasing research, we use the racial/ethnic terms and stylistic conventions (e.g., capitalized or lower-case letters) that are selected by the authors.
Learning goals are the intended purposes and desired achievements of a particular course, which generally identify the knowledge, skills, and capacities that all students in a class should achieve. Clear and well-designed course goals are one of the most important strategies for effective teaching (Hattie, 2011), and therefore, it follows that anti-racist syllabi would incorporate one or more objectives to foster equitable outcomes.
For example, learning goals that help students interrogate their own biases or the biases of a discipline can support an anti-racist classroom. An example comes from Brown faculty member Robert Campbell’s (Molecular Pharmacology, Physiology and Biotechnology) syllabus on “Precision Medicine or Privileged Medicine?”:
By the end of this course, you should be able to:...
- Understand how non-inclusiveness of biomedical research may bias the distribution of benefits, harms and risks for people, stakeholders and communities.
- Analyze your assumptions and beliefs when working to facilitate civic engagement that makes a difference for people from other places and experiences.
- Recognize power imbalances and issues of trust that marginalize people from research.
-BIOL-0940E (Robert Campbell, MPPB)
Learning goals -- which suggest what students should be able to do by the end of the course -- can be complemented by diversity and inclusion syllabus statements, which suggest what instructors will do to create anti-racist classrooms.
In their work on culturally responsive teaching, Margery Ginsberg and Raymond Wlodkowski (2009, p. 330) note that course content is one key element, which requires a “willing[ness] to cross the border from what we know to what we need to know…and to open ourselves to the limitations of our own perspectives and the need for those of others.” It is important to locate diverse course content throughout the curriculum. Indeed, students’ openness to diversity after college is associated with the frequency that instructors include diverse perspectives in their courses (Shim & Perez, 2018). Examples of ways that Brown faculty have diversified their syllabi, in multiple disciplines, can be found here.
I found that it wasn't enough to perform vulnerability and empathy with my students. The course materials (and deliverables) had to also be considered within the lens of unfolding trauma. In the next term, I will be considering my course design with intent to maximize care *and* pedagogic excellence.
-Sydney Skybetter, TAPS
In addition to the presentation of varied authors and communities, an anti-racist approach to course content will also be mindful of the balance between deficit- and asset-based depictions of communities. Sociologist Marisela Martinez-Cola (2018, p. 106) notes that while her discipline tends to “study the catastrophic,” the constant deficit depiction of People of Color can add to student despair and present a limited range of experiences. In her course planning she discusses the importance of including literature on middle- and upper-class People of Color, as well as material where “the marginalized are also the empowered, the strong, and the victorious” (p. 107). Similarly, highlighting the “cultural wealth” of Communities of Color is an approach that highlights strengths -- e.g., multiple language skills, aspirations, social networks -- rather than deficits (Yosso, 2005).
While it is important for instructors to make these adjustments, students can also support this work. For example, Brown faculty member Jeffrey Moser (History of Art and Architecture) includes a series of assignments in his Arts of Asia course (HIAA 21) that asks students to identify a piece of art that represents an artist, theme, community or tradition they felt was missing from or underrepresented in the course and develop an argument about why it should be included. With each successive iteration of the course, Professor Moser then integrates at least one of these proposals into the syllabus and lecture (with acknowledgement of the student). Additionally, asking students to write about the relevance of course concepts to their own lives has been shown to promote anti-racist outcomes.
Classroom discussions and problem solving
While classrooms can be sites of transformative learning, they are also situated in a broader system of White supremacy. Classrooms are “discretionary spaces” (Ball, 2018) where we (instructors) are engaged in dozens of split-second instructional decisions. As instructors, we imbue these quickly made decisions with our own biases. Additionally, White students enter college with less experience and predisposition to engage with diverse peers (Hall, Cabrera & Milem, 2011). While active learning is most likely to enhance student learning in a diverse classroom (Freeman, 2014; Gurin, 2000; Milem, 2000), discussions about race can turn silent or monological (Fox, 2017; Sue, 2013), small group work can privilege certain student voices (Eddy et al., 2015), and, at worst, these approaches can do harm to minoritized students.
Anti-racist classrooms should intentionally structure classroom interactions through one or more of the following approaches:
- Facilitation strategies such as classroom discussion guidelines, active engagement in checking microaggressions and amplifying microaffirmations, and calling students “in” to a discussion
- Clear guidelines for participation that allow students the opportunity to set goals that may encompass verbal and other modalities of participation (Gillis, 2019).
- Encouragement of a sense of belonging and positive classroom community, such as through writing or showing diverse images of practitioners and scholars in the field.
- Use of synchronous (e.g., Zoom chat or a Google Doc) or asynchronous discussions (e.g., Canvas). One study in an engineering classroom found that when teams planned design projects with written discussions, they were more likely to be equitable (Fowler, 2015).
- Well-defined roles and outcomes for pair, team and group experiences, to provide equitable rotations of roles for students to speak, listen, ideate, etc. (Thompson & Sekaquaptewa, 2002).
- Equitable access to course texts and materials, by using library reserves and Open Educational Resources (OER). The presence of OER resources, in particular, has been found to be related to equitable grading systems (Colvard, Watson, & Park, 2018). Course supplies may present another barrier (see textbox below).
- Teaching students about the potential for implicit bias, such as in small-group Zoom discussions (Adams, Devos, Rivera, Smith & Vega, 2014; Goshal, Lippard, Robas, & Muir, 2012).
When designing assignments— particularly for remote learning— I need to ensure each of my students will have access to all the necessary tools and materials, for the sake of equity.
This page from Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching also offers a helpful guide for teaching about race and racial injustice (Thurber, Harbin, & Bandy, J., 2019).
Grading and feedback can be two of the most critical sites of inequities because they are so deeply linked to educational outcomes and students’ sense of self. They also can be deeply imbued with implicit bias. For example, in his book Antiracist writing assessment ecologies, Asao Inoue (2015, pp. 3-4) argues, “If we are to enact helpful, educative, and fair writing assessments with our students, given the history of whiteness...we must understand our writing assessment as antiracist projects.” Similarly, criterion-referenced grading is an example of an anti-racist approach because grading systems associated with norm-referenced grading (“curving”) tend to exacerbate racial disparities (Hurtado & Sork, 2015).
Anti-racist approaches to assessment include:
- Using strategies to mitigate stereotype threat, such as feedback that emphasizes an instructor’s high standards, a student’s potential to reach them, and actionable feedback to improve (Steele, 2011; Yaeger et al. 2014).
- Using more frequent assignments with less weight (e.g., multiple graded drafts of a paper, practice problems, reading guide), an approach that has been found to reduce opportunity gaps (Eddy & Hogan, 2014).
- Employing contract grading systems, which allow students discretion over the amount (and often type) of work they plan to complete, which corresponds with a certain grade. (See this example from Inoue, 2019).
- Increasing transparency of assignments by clarifying the purpose, steps to complete the task, and criteria for success. (Examples can be found here.)
Knowing (and Re-Knowing) Yourself
Although we are not responsible for the culture-specific beliefs we grew up with, we are surely responsible for examining and questioning them as adults and as educators.
-Marchesani & Adams (1992, p. 14)
For educators, addressing components of anti-racist teaching is not a straightforward task, but a longer-term work in progress, with many iterations – and failures – along the pedagogical journey. As part of this lifelong work, we need to continually interrogate the racist systems and communities in which we live and work. Educators and students do not enter the classroom environment as blank slates devoid of identity or culture. Our beliefs and values impact the decisions we make as we teach. Brown’s Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity (OIED) has curated resources to start this work, which are available here.
We look forward to working with the Brown teaching and learning communities to support this work and, for those of us who are White faculty or staff, to engage in our own self-interrogation. To signal our shared commitment to the work, we sign below.
With great care, respect, and deep hope for our teaching and learning communities,
Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning
*The asterisk is used here to note a wide spectrum of gender identities, including transgender. Please see this resource from Brown’s LGBTQ Center for a full definition.
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