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From the Director: Teaching, Difference, and Power Symposium in Review

Posted by on Monday, May 11, 2015 in News.

By Derek Bruff, CFT Director

On April 21st, the Center for Teaching held a symposium as the final event in our “Teaching, Difference, and Power” theme year.  The CFT selected this theme for 2014-15 as a way to explore the challenges all educators face in negotiating difference and power in their classrooms.  When we selected the theme, over a year ago, we had no idea that the intersection of difference and power would become such a significant part of the national discourse this year, due to tragedies in Ferguson and New York City and elsewhere.

Such events have highlighted the importance of helping our students—and ourselves—think more deeply and critically about difference and power.  The symposium was an opportunity to learn how faculty, staff, and students across campus have been engaging in this challenging work, and to discuss steps we can take together to develop a more inclusive and equitable environment for teaching and learning.

I was particularly struck by a statement made by our opening speaker, Rosevelt Noble, Senior Lecturer in Sociology.  Drawing on his “Lost in the Ivy” research, which involves on dozens of in-depth interviews with black Vanderbilt students and alumni, he noted that for black students at Vanderbilt, the classroom is often last on their list of “safe” places where they can be themselves.

At the symposium, we heard from several people trying to address this significant problem, including representatives of three Vanderbilt student groups.  Akaninyene Ruffin, president of Hidden Dores; Akailah Jenkins, president of Vanderbilt NAACP; and Richard Blissett, leader of Crucial Conversations, gave those in attendance a sense of the challenges of being students of color at Vanderbilt, and also described their groups’ intentional, constructive efforts to affect change on campus.

We also heard from faculty who have built academic programs attentive to issues of difference and power.  Astronomy professor Keivan Stassun described the Fisk-Vanderbilt Bridge Program, which has become a pipeline for students of color to enter science and engineering faculty positions, and Spanish professor William Luis detailed the development of Vanderbilt’s new Latino and Latina Studies program, which has increased the attention to difference within the curriculum.

And, thanks to a video produced by the CFT’s Brielle Harbin and Rhett McDaniel, we heard insights from participants in learning communities on race and power that the CFT hosted this year.  The faculty members and graduate students in these learning communities shared reflections on challenging classroom dynamics, including stereotype threat and microagressions, along with strategies they have adopted to foster more inclusive and critical classroom discussions.

Over the past year, the CFT has developed a number of resources to help instructors understand and respond to issues of difference and power in their teaching.  See, for instance, our new teaching guides on increasing inclusivity in the classroomteaching students with disabilities, and feminist pedagogy. See also the series of videos on inclusive teaching in the STEM classroom we produced for an open, online course on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) teaching.

The symposium concluded with an engaged set of small-group conversations, during which attendees shared their own experiences and perspectives and discussed steps they and others at Vanderbilt might take to continue creating a diverse and democratic campus culture.  A number of ideas were floated: making conversations about difference more public, examining our own biases and positions of power, hiring a chief diversity officer, increasing faculty diversity, providing better support for women faculty and faculty of color, enhancing attention to difference and power in the curriculum, adding questions about inclusivity to student course evaluations, providing training on inclusive teaching.

The CFT will continue its efforts on that last point, with workshop opportunities next year for faculty and graduate student instructors, as well as continuing conversations about difference and power in the classroom.  We hope you’ll join us.  These are hard conversations to have, but they are important ones.

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