Moving Beyond a Single Diversity Class Requirement

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According to a 2015 employer survey conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, more than three-quarters of respondents agree that all college students should gain intercultural skills and an understanding of societies and countries outside of the U.S.

Thomas F.
Nelson Laird

However, even when a university promotes the integration of diversity throughout the curriculum, there is not a lot of individual support for faculty members, says Thomas F. Nelson Laird, PhD, associate professor of higher education and director of postsecondary research at Indiana University. “I place the blame on those of us in charge of diversity programs. We have set unrealistic expectations that make incorporation of these ideas into all courses [difficult],” he explains. “Faculty members want to improve how they reach all of their students, but everyone needs to realize that there is a difference [between] starting the process and fixing everything.”

“Not every course has to address diversity and inclusion directly,” Nelson Laird adds, “but in every course — even math and science — faculty members must recognize how to engage every student.” This is important, he says, as students learn differently based on their “socioeconomic status, abilities, disabilities, race, gender, age, and life experiences.”

Nelson Laird recommends that faculty members go beyond their course content to evaluate their classroom environment. He suggests considering several key questions: “Are all students engaged, and do they relate to the material?” and “Why do you connect with some students better than others, and what can be done to reach others?”

Additionally, he recommends that professors ask or listen for student input.  “For example, a science student may comment that no scientist studied in the course looks like him,” he says. “There are scientists from all countries and all cultures, so the faculty member can add discussions of other scientists to the class.”

University of Northern Colorado
Seven years ago, the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (HSS) at the University of Northern Colorado introduced a new faculty award to highlight both the university’s and the college’s commitment to diversity and inclusion in all classrooms — not just courses that specifically concentrate on diversity.

Christiane Olivo

“This year, we added a monetary component to the award and gave $500 for professional development to the winner to elevate the recognition and give it more credibility,” explains Christiane Olivo, PhD, professor and chair of the HSS Diversity Advisory Board.

Unlike other faculty recognitions in the college, the Diversity in the Classroom Award relies on nominations from students rather than from other faculty members. “Students know firsthand whether or not a [professor] demonstrates inclusive teaching practices and enhances understanding of diversity,” says Olivo.

The number of nominations has averaged five each year since the program’s inception, but Olivo is working to increase that figure. “Students don’t always pay attention to email, so we are diversifying our publicity to also include flyers posted in the dorms, information in student daily announcements, and promotion through student clubs,” she says. “The nomination form not only asks students to list the faculty member’s name, but also the specific class. Next fall, we’ll send a survey to all members of that [professor’s] class to ask for their feedback as well.”

This survey, Olivo says, will serve several purposes: to promote the award program to students in case they want to nominate another faculty member, to gather more information to use in the selection process, and to underscore the college’s commitment to inclusive teaching practices.

Recipients of the University of Northern Colorado’s Diversity in the Classroom Award Travis Boyce and Harmony Newman (photo by Hannah Swick)

The award is just one of the college’s overall efforts to promote inclusive, diverse teaching practices, says Olivo. Additionally, the HSS Diversity Advisory Board sponsors events during the year to give faculty members an opportunity to learn how to create inclusive classrooms. These have included panel discussions about inclusion in the classroom featuring students and past award recipients, as well as a meet and greet with representatives of various cultural advocacy centers on campus, including the Veterans’ Center and the Women’s Resource Center, to provide information on resources available to all groups.

The 2016-2017 award recipient is a professor who teaches a class on African geography that blends discussions of the country’s music, religions, and culture with those about the physical features of the area. But award recipients have varied over the years, Olivo says. “A few years ago,” she says, “the winner taught a poetry class that included writings that led to conversations about religion, sexual identity, and other social issues.”

In addition to diversity topics, the award recognizes inclusive teaching practices. For example, one student who submitted a nomination wrote, “The professor creates a relationship with students by being respectful of our comments and making us feel free to express ideas.” Another student said of a nominee, “She always has constructive and kind things to say about our ideas.”

North Carolina State University
Thomas Easley, PhD, director of community diversity for the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina

Thomas Easley

State University, believes that infusing inclusion and diversity throughout the entire curriculum is critical to providing students with the skills needed to be successful in a diverse workplace. “Employers want students who know how to interact and collaborate with a wide range of people,” he says.

Although students must take one of many courses offered to fulfill a diversity requirement, Easley believes that faculty members should address inclusion in all classes. Yet he points out that the main barrier to doing so is ambiguous definitions of diversity and inclusion. “It is not just race, gender, sexual orientation, and age — it also includes diversity of thought that reflects someone’s personal life and environment,” says Easley.

An orientation class focused on success strategies for students of color at North Carolina State visits the History Museum in Raleigh, N.C., to view the Selma Exhibit.

He admits that communicating to faculty the need to incorporate diversity throughout curricula is tough. Although professors of some courses, such as literature or social sciences, may find it easier to build discussion around various cultures, peoples, and locations into a class, other faculty members, such as those in engineering or science, say it’s more difficult, he says. However, Easley believes that incorporating these meaningful ideas into classroom discussions is possible.

“I’m a forestry professor who knows that my students will need to develop relationships with landowners. Building those relationships requires understanding the landowner’s perspective and how your plans for the trees will affect the ecosystem,” he says. “I teach my students to think beyond the capitalistic perspective of forestry and make it about people. This approach requires the ability to recognize and communicate with individuals of diverse backgrounds.”

To accomplish this end, Easley has students consider what the land and its trees mean to the families who own it, as well as the impact of forestry on the area’s economy. “I talk about the different perspectives of forestry,” he says. “I went to a historically black college where I was taught the principles of reforesting and the concept of not depleting the forests.”

In his class, Easley discusses the Native American perspective that trees are our teachers. “We talk about looking at the different species that live in the forests and changes that will occur after forestation,” he explains. “We discuss the importance of learning about the forest and the people who live in the area in order to evaluate how water patterns, animal habitats, and people’s lives might change after the trees are gone and as new trees grow.”

To help improve one’s ability to address diversity and inclusion in the classroom, Nelson Laird recommends that faculty work with colleagues to share ideas and focus on more than just teaching skills that prepare students for the workforce, but also on improving their ability to think critically, understand different perspectives, and collaborate in a multicultural, global world.

While this work can seem daunting, he says that even small steps are critical. “Start something — even one class at a time,” Nelson Laird says. “There is no way to solve all of our diversity and inclusion challenges overnight. It is just important to start somewhere.”●

Sheryl S. Jackson is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.