Directors of Diversity and Inclusion host workshop to evaluate classroom environment

Visiting faculty help professors alter syllabi to improve inclusivity

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Almost every department in the College has its own director for Diversity and Inclusion.

Richard Dizon | Cavalier Daily

The University’s Directors of Diversity and Inclusion — an initiative of the University and U.Va. CHARGE beginning its second year in the College — hosted a workshop Thursday to address inclusivity in the classroom across the College’s departments.

The workshop was led by three visiting faculty from local colleges — two from James Madison University and one from the University of the District of Columbia.

Professors were instructed to bring syllabi for their classes to the workshop. In workshopping each syllabus, they were encouraged to consider not only the stated learning goals for the semester, but also the subtextual messages their course content and organization might be sending to students.

Directors of Diversity and Inclusion began during the 2015-16 academic year as an initiative led by the dean’s office and associate deans. The program receives funding from a five-year NSF ADVANCE grant provided by U.Va. CHARGE, an organization devoted to promoting gender inclusivity in the sciences at the University.

College Dean Ian Baucom leads the DDI initiative, which is managed by a three-person faculty steering committee. The committee currently consists of Politics Prof. Carol Mershon, representing the social sciences; Assoc. Religious Studies Prof. Heather Warren, representing the arts and humanities; and Chemistry Prof. Cassandra Fraser, representing the natural sciences.

Almost every department in the College has a designated DDI. The primary mission of DDI is to improve inclusivity and diversity in the next generation of faculty.

English Prof. John O’Brien, DDI for the English department, said he contributes to this mission by sitting in on prospective faculty interviews, where he serves as a reminder to interviewers to be mindful of bias and inclusivity.

“There are all sorts of ways in which biases, even by the best intentioned people, can kind of creep into things,” O’Brien said. “Just having an observer who is just there, who’s charged specifically with listening and thinking about these things — that’s basically the job.”

Mershon, of the DDI steering committee, said DDI aims to significantly change the demographics of the University’s faculty over the next decade of hiring. She described this past year as a banner year in terms of hiring female and minority faculty.

While just a single year of diverse hiring will do little to change the overall faculty demographics of the college, she said the changes will be transformative as a generation of faculty retires over the next decade and gets replaced by a much more diverse pool.

“We really have an opportunity to change the situation for students of color who don’t find professors who look like them,” Mershon said.

This workshop was the first of its kind for the program, and a second workshop is tentatively planned for the start of the spring semester.

At the workshop, a survey was distributed to serve as a guideline for syllabi evaluation. It asked educators to consider six aspects of each of their classes: people, content, relevance, pedagogy, values and climate.

Mershon put this curriculum evaluation in the context of recent events, such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

“If a faculty member can create this space for discussion in the classroom of events that are traumatic, that’s really important,” Mershon said.

O’Brien said DDI differs from other diversity initiatives on Grounds by placing the responsibility for thinking about issues of diversity and inclusion on specific people throughout University departments rather than focusing on broad policy changes.

“Unless someone is designated to be particularly accountable and responsible, it’s way too easy for things to slide, or for people to assume it will be taken care of by someone else,” he said.

Mershon said the workshop gave her a lot to think about, and she wants to incorporate changes to promote inclusivity into both future courses and those she currently offers.

“It was really quite positive,” Mershon said, “Not only did I learn from the three people who led the workshop — although I certainly, certainly did — but also from my colleagues, the faculty who attended, in ways that I didn’t expect.”

One change she said she is eager to make was the use of alternative reporting methods to verbal reports, such as diagrams and written responses on the blackboard, in her small group work.

“I think that would allow for different people who have — who are equally talented but communicate in different ways — to be able to communicate their insights well and for everybody,” Mershon said.

DDI or programs akin to DDI will eventually exist in all eleven schools at the University, Mershon said. DDI’s sister program at the Engineering School — called Advocates and Allies — will launch next academic year.

“I try to think about the inclusion aspect,” O’Brien said. “How do we go about creating a community where everyone feels like they have a stake and everyone is included in the stake that is the success of the community?”

U.Va. CHARGE did not respond to request for comment.

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