Training encourages, honors campus diversity

Friday, October 9, 2015

Graduate students Lauren Hanson, Angelica Sibrian, Nora Karakousoglou, Natashia Lindsey, Abimbola Adelakun, and Jess O’Rear train to become facilitators of the Inclusive Classrooms Seminar.College classrooms are intended to promote the free exchange of ideas among people from all backgrounds and walks of life. The College of Fine Arts sponsored four Inclusive Classrooms training seminars last month to create spaces where diversity is encouraged and respected.

Fifty graduate students serving as teaching assistants and assistant instructors participated in the training conducted in partnership with the university’s Office for Inclusion and Equity (OIE) within the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement (DDCE).

“The goal is to have the training available to everybody in the college, especially those teaching core classes in the curriculum,” said Andrew Dell’Antonio, the college’s associate dean of undergraduate studies and member of the Fine Arts Diversity Committee.

Launched in fall 2014, the Inclusive Classrooms Leadership Certificate Seminar is a four-hour training aimed at empowering instructors with the skills to create a positive classroom environment and approach difficult situations that commonly arise in an academic setting, said Betty Jeanne Taylor, assistant vice president for inclusion and equity and developer of the seminar.

“I hope that we improve our campus climate,” Taylor said of the seminar’s main objective. “It’s a way to move toward improving and bettering our campus, and to see that conversation being engaged, sometimes for the first time.”

The college was the first at the university to host a series of dedicated training sessions of this sort. The seminars also were co-facilitated by four trained graduate students from within the college. The concept came about through collaboration between Dell’Antonio and the Diversity Committee during a pilot strategic diversity planning process.

Sherri L. Sanders, associate vice president for inclusion and equity, said, “The seminar is an excellent example of an active and intentional diversity plan strategy that demonstrates how the college provides forums for the cultivation of a mutual respect of differences and cross-cultural understanding throughout the College of Fine Arts.”

Dell’Antonio saw Taylor conduct the Inclusive Classrooms training during the pilot of the program in 2012 and the way participants reacted—they found it gripping and useful, he said.

“For the students, it’s extraordinary professional development. Being able to foster a sense of community is really important,” Dell’Antonio said.

The seminar is divided into two days, and the first day’s two-hour session establishes concepts and context—what it means to be inclusive.  The second day is about processes—how to set the tone of inclusiveness through everything from the language used in the syllabus to the class’s seating arrangements, Taylor said. Then various scenarios, involving microaggressions, are used to spark discussion and find solutions. Microaggressions are described as the subtle ways in which body and verbal language convey oppressive ideology about power or privilege against marginalized identities, as defined by the Microaggressions Project.

“When we discuss microaggressions in class, I find that participants express genuine surprise at what constitutes microagressions and how they have been guilty of some offense at some point or the other,” said Abimbola Adelakun, seminar facilitator, fifth-year graduate student and assistant instructor for Introduction to Theatre. People also come to the understanding that there is no permanent offender or offended when it comes to issues of microaggressions. Anybody can be a victim because of their identity. From race to gender to sexuality to ethnicity, we come to learn about being considerate.”

Adelakun, an international student, became involved with Inclusive Classrooms as a way to learn more about American classrooms. The training taught her to be careful about offense without compromising scholarship.

“Often I feel that people are not sure of what they will do that will become a problem so they tend to be over-cautious around minorities,” she said. “It is good to be cautious, but there is a level to which this is carried out that becomes disturbing. I have learnt to find that rightful balance between what I say and what I am not supposed to say all the time.”

Julianne Graper, second-year Ph.D. student in Ethnomusicology and assistant instructor for a class on world music, said taking the seminar was a very positive and enriching experience. 

“I think this kind of training is crucial, and should be required of all graduate students before becoming a teaching assistant,” she said. “We all have biases, and learning to eliminate them in our lives and our teaching is life-long work.  We will also have students of a variety of backgrounds in our classes, and it is crucial that we consider the ways that our own preconceptions affect their learning experience.”

Natashia D. Lindsey, a Ph.D. candidate in Performance as Public Practice, initially took the training because she is passionate about the subject matter, but then decided to facilitate within the college to get involved on the other side of it.

“It’s a chance to talk about situations logically, academically, emotionally—all those feelings that come into play in that moment,” she said. “It’s very important to consider how we can make the classroom a better space to learn in, and the college obviously put time, energy and money to make that possible and it’s great.”