Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, & Anti-Racism in Learning
Appalachia is a land of immense physical and cultural beauty juxtaposed against economic destitution and educational malaise. Those mountains are where I spent my first eighteen years of life and the place I still consider my home. Out of the mountains, I emerged into my academic journey with a profound sense of purpose to overcome the systemic barriers erected before me. But this was coupled with a sense of estrangement from my peers - I spoke with a thick "Southern" (but actually Appalachian) accent, I had emerged from a background where success was superficially defined, and I had succeeded despite a substandard primary education by virtue of a handful of dedicated teachers and my own determination to overcome. My journey in self-awareness has allowed me to reflect on these factors and have provided me an empathetic view toward all students striving to succeed despite the challenges they have faced.
Although my upbringing was in a strictly White Anglo-Saxon Protestant environment, my experiences in undergrad, throughout grad school, and in the world have opened my eyes to the critical importance of true equity in education. My vision of diversity is one that seeks to enhance student self-understanding through education; I firmly believe that the small liberal arts college experience is uniquely equipped to provide this opportunity.
My own field of study in biology is a powerful arena for all students to develop these reflective skills. The material seeks a common truth through empirical process while allowing for students of differing racial, ethnic, national, and gender backgrounds to construct a personal, humanistic interpretation and share that with others in the class through open, supportive discussion. By fostering this critical but inclusive environment, students begin to develop their own identities as scientists while also embracing the unique identities of others. I have grounded my vision of teaching around the most inclusive possible definition of diversity - both seen and unseen - through an emphatically and evolving anti-racist approach to education, the development of science communication skills among students, and ensuring an equitable classroom where all students have the capacity to develop and demonstrate their understanding.
Appalachia is a land of injustice – injustice perpetrated on the residents by government neglect and injustice perpetrated by the residents on members of the full spectrum of minority groups. Despite the social forces around me, I found myself disturbed from a young age by the social and economic issues that in many ways define my home. This awareness and my maturing perspective have guided me to establish a culture of authentic, anti-racist inclusion in the classroom and lab to combat the alienation students can often experience. To be anti-racist is not a radical position; at its most basic, it is merely an acknowledgement that cultures are non-hierarchical, that implicit biases to the contrary must be banished, and that the history of Western civilization is intertwined with racism. This is an approach that acknowledges the individual instructor's agency in creating an inclusive environment while also realizing the systemic issues at the university, local, state, and national levels that perpetuate racism and disadvantages members of all underrepresented groups, but especially racial and ethnic minorities. I seek to affirm all students from all backgrounds in a truly comprehensive way and open the door to a complete learning experience. It sheds the assimilationist tendencies that pervade academia in favor of open discussion and appreciation for one another in the fulfillment of the liberal arts’ mission. Allowing students to understand the diversity of perspectives from which other students come improves metacognition and enhances student learning by revealing the mechanics of how the individual student learns in juxtaposition to the approachs and existing beliefs of others.
Every student in the classroom learning science is a scientist. This is a privilege accompanied by immense responsibility to make the world better through their knowledge. Popular science communication is still in its infancy and epidemic issues in public understanding of science have provided us with a fractured and dysfunctional mass media. COVID-19 has been an exercise in real-time science and while the scientific progress itself has been monumental, popular understanding is heavily distorted. This climate poses an exceptional danger to disadvantaged groups who are often the victims of such poor communication. Science is imperfect. It is an imprecise endeavor conducted by humans. We scientists couch our findings in oblique and guarded language obfuscated by jargon and liable to misinterpretation. This does not invite new members into the scientific community, it turns them away. In each of the classes I will teach and in my own laboratory, I will strive to provide trainees with meaningful experiences in communicating complex scientific concepts into broadly understandable terms. The methods will always vary by the size of the class and the depth of the content, but presentations and writing assignments geared for a general audience, pamphlets for campus distribution, and new outreach opportunities with local primary schools in disadvantaged communities will all feature prominently in the toolkit. Outreach especially is a prime opportunity for students to develop their own scientific identities by taking on the role of instructor in laboratory demonstrations to elementary, middle, and high school students while also performing a valuable service to the larger community.
Science courses have often been taught in a somewhat linear and monotonous manner: lectures, quizzes, and exams. However, neither the instructional delivery nor the means of assessment are tailored to a diverse audience of native English speakers and English language learners, different styles of learning, or differing ability to perform during assessments. It is my hope that through the provision of a range of in-class activities - from individual writing activities to small group presentations and discussions to brief, highly focused lectures and beyond - and a range of assessments - traditional exams, take-home exams, low-stakes quizzes, long-form essays, presentations, discussion leadership, and more - I can not only provide better instruction to students by creating a dynamic class environment, I can also get a better understanding of their comprehension of the material through varied assessment. This keys into the diversity of learning histories and cultural influences on students and allows iterative improvements in approach as the course becomes better tailored to the broader university culture. All of these features are able to be supported by institutional offices of diversity and inclusion, the Writing Center, and peer tutoring programs, where available. Such resources not only aid me in becoming a better instructor, but also lifts students up to achieve their potential.
The largest factor working against student learning is often alienation. This disconnection between their innate desire to learn and the tools they have with which to learn generates a profound barrier to student success. Through greater awareness of these barriers within a classroom, I can help to provide student the liberated environment where they can learn as they learn best. Beyond this, my greater vision is to provide the individual student with conscious awareness of their own barriers so that they can help others (peers, other instructors, employers) to overcome them as well; this is a clear skill they can take with them into their lives far beyond college into their personal and professional lives.