Friday, September 18, 2009

A culture of inclusion

Just went to one of the Provost’s lecture series done by Mathew Ouellett. The topic was creating and maintaining a culture of inclusion diversity and social justice. I’m sure I’m going to misrepresent some of the thoughts/discussion so just keep in mind this is from my perspective.

He started off by talking about the admission requirements to Harvard University when it first started, having us all start off with hands raised and dropping them when we didn’t meet one of the criteria. First: Are we male? (I think over half the hands dropped, which is very interesting because I don’t think over half our faculty are women—this suggests that perhaps the topic or the lecture series as a whole is of differential interest). Second: Something along the lines of are we the sons of a minister which lost the rest of us. Later he summarized these slightly differently. 1) Male, 2) son of a landowner (meaning citizenship back then) 3) A Christian, being prepared for the ministry.

As an aside—this brings to mind something that we often forget about the way our country was formed. It was rule by the privileged not only in the sense that elected officials make the decisions, but that those doing the electing were not the population as a whole—only those who owned land. I remember being blown away by that back in high school history class.

Ouellett’s point was that we’ve all (even the White males among us) benefited from affirmative action. He then talked about the hierarchies that are in place within academia. We have a decided pecking order that starts with faculty vs staff, then pretunure vs tenured faculty, then whether or not you have grants and for what amount, then whether or not you have an endowed chair, etc . . . I have to confess that I take a lot of this for granted sometimes to the detriment of my interactions with others. In the last month or so I’ve had two doctoral students say something (one directly and one indirectly) about reacting negatively to my off-hand comments.

This is a new concern to me. I think in a lot of ways the doc students we have now are so much better than my cohort and I. They are publishing more, presenting more, know their methodology better. They have more grant writing experience, you name it and they’re doing better. But for some reason we seemed to have much more swagger back then than they do now.

The discussion then turned to a major theme and his buy-in for it was interesting. The theme is about collaboration and tolerance, and this worked into ways that you might not expect given the topic (see more below). The buy-in was brilliant. Collaboration is what we’re trained to do in the academy. None of us work in a vacuum, we’re the product of the people we’ve worked with and the people we’ve been mentored by, and I would argue, by the people we’re mentoring.

In a spirit of collaboration he encouraged us to find teaching partners. Especially ones coming from a different background than us with respect to diversity. This seems like it has several barriers. Especially recognition and teaching load. What does that look like in your binder? I appreciate that he gave a nod to the fact that formal teaching may not be realistic and he encouraged us to find less formal mechanisms to inform our teaching. This was a contrast to Ken Bain’s statement that we need to change the licensure exams in our respective fields if the assessment doesn’t fit our pedagogical practices. There’s nothing more paralyzing than hearing a far away goal without short term strategies to get there. I left with a feeling that Ouellet was not pitching rhetoric by trying to facilitate change.

Another theme of the talk was about picking your battles (although he didn’t phrase it exactly that way). He talked about having an office above a dormitory and having to ride the elevators and hear “that’s so gay” enough that he spent an entire day doing interventions. It wasn’t effective. It didn’t work because he didn’t have a personal relationship with any of the students—but when things happen in a class, and he mentioned a couple of examples, then you do have a relationship with the students and you have an opportunity to facilitate change.

I also appreciate (again with the spirit of collaboration), that his primary advice on facilitating change wasn’t about making statements but asking questions. One of the faculty mentioned students saying race wasn’t a problem here but was a problem in the ‘Southern States.’ He said it was an opportunity to ask the students about their own race identity, and suggested a couple of specific activities to get them thinking along these lines. If I were thinking about this in Piaget terms he was really asking them to force a moment of equilibration, getting them to think about past events in their own lives that contradict the thought of race not being an issue. He also recognized that there is value in their existing beliefs, that it isn’t about growing up with bad parents or incorrect thoughts.

The other big theme in his talk was failing with grace. As faculty, we don’t make our practice public. Which is so true. When I’m struggling with a new analysis I don’t do it in front of my students. I figure it out, then tell them what I did. As if I magically knew it all along. This is not something we can practice privately because it happens a bit off the cuff. We’ve got to be willing to fail, and most importantly willing to move on from there.

One outstanding question I have: At Lehigh, one of the full professors mentioned that he never brings up politics in his class. I used to quite a bit but since then I’ve resisted (or tried to anyway) precisely because of some of the power relationships Ouellet started off discussing. Who am I to force my opinions on graduate students? So where do we draw the line? It seems like a culture of inclusion is not political to me, but for some that is extremely political. I guess that’s the genius of asking questions rather than making statements, right?