Faculty, staff discuss steps to support inclusion

At a Feb. 5 symposium on closing Iowa State's racial and socioeconomic achievement gaps, groups of faculty and staff discussed how to improve support for underrepresented students. Some highlights of issues they touched upon:

Establishing scope

Inclusive classroom training

Faculty and teaching staff interested in making their classrooms more inclusive can check out the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching's (CELT) website on the topic. Since fall 2016, CELT has been holding monthly workshops and group dialogues on inclusive teaching. More than 900 people have taken the workshop, said Ann Marie VanDerZanden, associate provost for academic programs and former CELT director.

Data can be key. In the agricultural and biosystems engineering department, for instance, graduating seniors take an exit survey that recently added questions about students' experiences. That information helped convince faculty in the department that inclusion was a priority concern, said Amy Kaleita-Forbes, the department's associate chair for teaching.

"That was a very powerful thing to personalize it in that way. It really improves the buy-in," said Kaleita-Forbes, an associate professor.

Denise Williams-Klotz, assistant director of multicultural student affairs, compared the importance of data in informing student success approaches to how her 18-month-old son answers questions he can't answer by saying "puppy."

"I think in higher ed we have a few too many 'puppy' moments," Williams-Klotz said.

Valuing voices

Listening is essential, too. Rosie Perez, assistant professor in the School of Education, said as a qualitative researcher she considers every student story to be data.

"What I've come to realize is we're not using what we know, what we hear. We rely really heavily on some formalized data that often allows us to ignore, dismiss other inputs we've been hearing," Perez said.

Howard Tyler, assistant dean for student services in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said feedback from students sometimes misses the boat because of who's solicited to speak.

"We need to ask the ones who have struggled the most. I think we tend to bring in student government leaders and club leaders and students that are rock stars in our current culture and ask them how to improve our programs when they really don't know because they've done outstanding in our programs as they are," Tyler said.

Voicing values

Instructors should stress the significance of diversity and inclusion not just in a syllabus but in all student interactions, said Cameron Campbell, senior associate Design dean.

"I don't know if you can over-message this -- how powerful and how valuable it is to bring absolutely contrary perspectives to the work you do," Campbell said.

When discriminatory patterns emerge in the classroom, they should be identified and discussed, Perez said. She gave an example of two students of color who were the only members of a class not selected for a team during a small-group exercise. She asked the white students to explain the situation.

"They had to name what happened," she said.

Seating arrangements and team selections often can end up self-segregating, so several faculty panelists described how they force more diverse groupings. Tyler said he rotates who sits by who every week, which students detest at first but come to appreciate.

A 'checked box?'

Though none suggested dropping Iowa State's requirement for undergraduates to complete a U.S. diversity course, faculty panelists were concerned about the signal it sends.

"I think there's a danger if we make it a single-class component that's just in one place," Campbell said. 

"Having those requirements at all detracts from the process because now we look at this as a checked box," Tyler said. "It makes us feel good to check that box."

The diversity curriculum is being studied for possible changes, an initiative that includes mini-grants for developing new courses. Perez said the criteria for what counts for diversity credit should be tightened, and the requirement -- which has been in place since 1996 -- should be framed as a starting point for deeper engagement.

Beyond the usual suspects

Referring to the climate underrepresented students face at Iowa State, Perez said: "I think the question is, 'When are we going to stop being surprised?'" She said changing that climate will take continual dialogue. "The idea that we can only do it in one space or periodically is where we tend to struggle because it becomes a patch fix for something that's a gaping hole."

But not everyone see inclusion as a priority, said Kabongwe Gwebu, international student support adviser in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. "That's a challenge," he said.

Kaleita-Forbes said the senior surveys in her department were troubling in part due to comments about diversity and inclusion made by some white students. "I mean, it was sickening," she said.

One strategy to try to reach those students is tapping the expertise of the department's external advisory council of industry leaders, she said.

"They had a lot of programming in place and a lot of insights already that we were able to leverage. That's been a great talking point to students: Look, this is a professional skill that you have to develop because there are expectations about your ability to work with other people in the workplace once you leave here," Kaleita-Forbes said.