Robey B. Champine, PhD, MS, MPH, is an Assistant Professor in the Master of Public Health Program, where she teaches courses on social and behavioral aspects of public health and program evaluation. Her research involves partnering with communities to design, implement, and evaluate programs for children exposed to potentially traumatic events.
COVID-19’s devastating and disproportionate impacts on people of color have brought issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) to the fore. The pandemic’s exacerbation of deeply rooted racial health disparities is a call to action to transform our approach to education, research, and community service and engagement.
As instructors training the next generation of local, national, and global leaders, this renewed approach involves embedding the principles of DEI into what and how we teach our students. This process involves authentic and ongoing exploration of issues related to systemic oppression, white privilege, bias, and racial justice.
As an Assistant Professor in the Master of Public Health (MPH) program, I reflect on these issues in delivering my course lectures, choosing readings, and crafting assignments and activities to ensure that diverse perspectives are represented and valued. However, earlier this year, my colleague shared a journal article with me that opened my eyes to how I can and should do more to advance DEI. In their article, Fuentes, Zelaya, and Madsen (2021) presented considerations for promoting DEI in the classroom. They described “diversity” broadly, as “captur[ing] the full range of human diversity,” including age, gender, ethnicity, race, and sexual orientation.
Equity-centered efforts involve recognizing structural inequities and creating opportunities for historically underrepresented populations to thrive. Finally, inclusion involves “active, intentional, and ongoing engagement with diversity” to promote increased awareness and understanding of how individuals interact with systems of power, privilege, and oppression.
I highlight seven teaching and mentoring strategies from Fuentes et al. (2021) that are translatable across disciplines:
- Consider whether your teaching strategies may unintentionally disadvantage certain groups of students. Do your lectures and assignments wrongfully assume that all students come into class with the same level of foundational knowledge? This practice is exclusionary, as it fails to consider how students from low-resource backgrounds may not have had access to the same resources and supports as their more socioeconomically privileged peers. Instead, at the beginning of the semester, ask students to share their pre-existing knowledge of key course topics (e.g., via anonymous surveys or polls) and adapt your lessons accordingly.
- Abandon more traditional and hierarchical forms of teaching. Avoid treating your students as passive learners who are receiving information from you, the knowledgeable instructor. This approach denotes a power imbalance and fails to embrace students’ expertise and experience. Instead, promote active learning by engaging students as partners in the learning process and providing them with opportunities to partake in critical discussions and reflections of course material. I have learned that teaching truly is a bidirectional process; it occurs at both the student and instructor levels.
- Engage in reflexivity. As instructors, we must routinely reflect on how our personal identities, experiences, and perspectives shape, in both positive and potentially problematic ways, our teaching and interactions with our students. No one is immune from experiencing implicit bias, or subconscious prejudice, stereotypes, and generalizations. The key is for us to engage in reflexivity by inwardly acknowledging these thoughts and taking steps to ensure that they do not influence our actions. I recommend checking out the Diversity and Inclusion Opportunities page of MSU’s Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives site for more information on how to address implicit bias and microaggressions, or subtle and intentional acts of discrimination. We should also provide opportunities for our students to engage in such reflexivity (e.g., via private journal entries, group discussions) as it relates to the course material.
- Avoid engaging in tokenism. Avoid including topics or readings in a course simply because they appear to reflect diversity. Similarly, refrain from singling out students based on their backgrounds and identities. These superficial practices are harmful and perpetuate stereotypes. Diversity should be authentically infused into material throughout a course and not addressed in a siloed fashion.
- Account for intersectionality. Intersectionality involves understanding how individuals’ multiple marginalized social identities interact and the role of oppression in shaping individuals’ worldviews. Along with our students, we represent the full spectrum of diversity (e.g., in regard to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation). We must acknowledge how inequities tied to multiple identities can shape individuals’ perspectives and lived experiences, including those covered in class. Thus, where appropriate, we can provide opportunities for students to interrogate these issues in a safe and supportive learning space.
- Create diversity-centered learning objectives. To what extent are your student learning objectives DEI-centered? We can use these objectives to convey our commitment to adopting a culture-centered teaching and mentoring approach. For example, “In this course, students will describe diversity and inclusion aspects related to the evaluation of public health programs…”
- Consider including a diversity and inclusion statement in the course syllabus. Fuentes et al. (2021) also suggested incorporating a brief statement at the beginning of the course syllabus that addresses DEI. This statement can help to set a positive tone for the course and reinforce your commitment to cultivating a learning environment that is DEI-centered and acknowledges issues of oppression and privilege in the target field of study. The authors provide links to example statements (e.g., The Harriet W. Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University).
These seven strategies offer useful guidance for how we all can become more DEI-informed. I am far from an expert on this topic, but am learning how to do better from my more experienced colleagues and students. Earlier this year, I began including a diversity and inclusion statement in my course syllabi. It is not perfect and, at the beginning of the semester, I ask my students to share their feedback:
I regard people’s differences, such as those based on ethnicity, race, gender, socioeconomic status, and sexual orientation, as central to individual identity and experience, including experiences of exclusion and oppression. My commitment to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion has shaped my program of research, my teaching and mentoring, and my engagement with colleagues and peers. It is my intent that you will find this course to be responsive to, and respectful of, your unique backgrounds, identities, experiences, and perspectives. However, I acknowledge that there may be implicit biases in the course readings and materials as well as the potential for microaggressions in our interactions with each other. Please contact me if you have suggestions on how to improve the course and make it a more inclusive space. I also understand that many of you balance school with outside responsibilities (e.g., related to work and family), which may be stressful. Please know that I am here as a resource to discuss your needs and am committed to helping you succeed. At any point during the semester, you are encouraged to reach out with questions, concerns, or feedback. Each of us plays an important role in creating a safe, respectful, and supportive learning community.
I invite your feedback on this statement and would love to hear from you on ways that you prioritize and advance DEI. I look forward to our continued conversations in this area. Together we will do better. Please email your feedback to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fuentes, M. A., Zelaya, D. G., & Madsen, J. W. (2021). Rethinking the course syllabus: Considerations for promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion. Teaching of Psychology, 48(1), 69-79.
September 21, 2021