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Race on Campus

Engage in higher ed’s conversations about racial equity and inclusion. Delivered on Tuesdays.

From: Sarah Brown

Subject: Race on Campus: You've Embraced Inclusive Teaching. But Is It Working?

Welcome to Race on Campus. Ohio State University's College of Education and Human Ecology took a look at student evaluations of teaching from 120 colleges. There were no questions about inclusive teaching — in other words, whether professors were creating a learning environment that, among other things, reflected students’ backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs in the material and assignments. So the college created a way for students to provide that feedback, Sarah Brown reports.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

A Rubric for Inclusion

Inclusive teaching is attracting a lot of buzz these days. It’s the practice of creating a classroom environment that reflects and respects students’ wide-ranging backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs — in terms of the readings, the assignments, and the in-class discussions.

The concept has gained traction as student populations diversify and professors consider how to make their teaching more racially equitable. Advocates of inclusive teaching say that lower graduation rates for some groups, like Black and Hispanic students, are a sign that traditional approaches don't serve students from underrepresented backgrounds. Inclusive teaching also provides a framework for encouraging students to talk across their differences and bringing societal conversations about tough topics, like racial injustice, into the classroom.

But three years ago, leaders in Ohio State University’s College of Education and Human Ecology had a series of conversations with students of color, and realized that something was missing. There was no way for the students — the ones who were ostensibly benefiting from inclusive teaching — to provide feedback to professors on how they were doing.

And students did have feedback to offer. “Students of color said they felt a lot of the burden for talking about diversity, for presenting different perspectives that other students may not have heard in the past, often fell on them," said Nicole Luthy, chief of staff and director of strategic operations in the college. They said they felt obligated to step up because many instructors didn't have the tools to manage difficult classroom discussions themselves. Students also questioned whether diversity was reflected in course materials and in the way discussions were framed.

So the College of Education and Human Ecology designed a new course evaluation — specifically for students to tell professors whether they felt that their identities were represented and respected.

Currently, the tool — called the "Supplemental Evaluation of Instruction for Inclusive Classrooms" — includes seven statements on which students can assess their professors, including: "used culturally diverse examples in their courses," "privileged students from their own cultures over students from other cultures," and "valued cultural commonalities and differences among students."

Noelle Arnold, senior associate dean and a professor of educational administration, is leading the effort to develop and research the tool, along with Keeley Pratt, associate professor in human development and family science, and Carlotta Penn, senior director of partnerships and engagement in the college's equity office. In their initial research, they examined course evaluations from 120 colleges. None of them included questions about inclusive teaching.

For now, Ohio State's evaluation of inclusive teaching is still in a pilot phase, Arnold said. Since 2019, graduating seniors in the College of Education and Human Ecology have been invited each semester to fill out the rubric, based on their general experience in courses throughout their time in the college. So far, 81 percent of students said they felt like their instructors valued cultural commonalities and differences among students. But nearly half didn't feel that their instructors had adequately managed disagreements that occurred between students from different cultures.

In the spring 2022 semester, the college plans to work with a handful of faculty members — recent winners of the college's teaching awards — and give their students a chance to evaluate them directly. Arnold and her colleagues will determine whether they're asking students the right questions.

Even when the tool rolls out more widely, it'll be optional for faculty members — and separate from the official course evaluations that are used in tenure, promotion, and merit-raise decisions. Changing what's asked on formal evaluations would require approval by the Faculty Senate.

Looking Inward

Student evaluations of teaching are a thorny topic in higher ed. Research shows that students tend to rate women and people of color more negatively. But one positive aspect of evaluations is that they provide information, Arnold said. As Ohio State explores how to help professors improve their teaching, she said, it's important to have a sense of where things stand.

Many professors want this kind of feedback from students, she added — especially junior faculty members who are committed to the idea of inclusive teaching and have gone through training, but are still figuring out how to put it into practice.

If colleges want to take their diversity goals seriously, Luthy said, "we have to be willing to look at our longstanding practices" and question whether they are serving higher ed's increasingly diverse student population. It's not enough to talk about diversity in the strategic plan and host a few webinars, she said: "We have to also show that we're willing to look inward and make changes that are going to improve the core work of what we do."

If you want to learn more about inclusive teaching, my colleagues Beckie Supiano and Beth McMurtrie have covered it extensively, including in the most recent issue of the Teaching newsletter. You can also check out The Chronicle’s in-depth guide on inclusive teaching, written by two professors at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. —Sarah Brown

Read Up

  • After a white law student at Rutgers University repeated a racial epithet from a legal opinion, a group of Black law students are petitioning for the institution to create a policy on slurs. (The New York Times)
  • As Covid-19 cases climb in India, millions of Indian Americans are living a dual reality. Life is returning to pre-pandemic standards in the U.S., but many Indian Americans are watching their relatives suffer from a gruesome second coronavirus wave. (The Washington Post)
  • In 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men in Detroit. The subsequent federal civil-rights trial for Chin was the first for an Asian American. In an interview about her book on Chin, Paula Yoo explains how his death and trial sparked a new era for Asian American political engagement. (NPR) 

—Fernanda

Sarah Brown covers campus culture, including Title IX, race and diversity, and student mental health. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.