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Faculty encouraged to bring campus climate conversations into the classroom

April 14, 2016 By Kelly April Tyrrell

One day this month, in between teaching a class and attending the monthly meeting of the University of Wisconsin–Madison Faculty Senate, Chris Walker, a professor of dance, met with a student concerned about a post on the social media site Yik Yak.

“I sat with a student until shortly before I came in here, who was showing me a message posted just yesterday that ‘Black students in Sellery (Hall) don’t know how to be quiet,’ that ‘Black people everywhere don’t know how to be quiet,’” Walker told his colleagues. “I work with 15-20 students of color every semester … I have to rebuild spines, I have to rebuild students in their own identity, I have to remind my students that they belong here and that they’re valuable — and that the scholarship they engage in here will be positive and life-changing — and that’s before I can get into teaching my course.”

Walker’s comments, like those of other faculty members that day and in recent weeks, took shape as part of a larger call to action for university faculty and academic and university staff to act in taking responsibility for improving our campus climate and for finding ways to bring difficult conversations about hate, bias, inequality and adversity into the classroom.

The call to action complements existing and renewed efforts by the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement (DDEEA), the Office of the Chancellor and the Dean of Students Office to highlight resources and tools promoting campuswide inclusion and diversity.

Related: Update on actions taken to address incidents of hate and bias and to improve campus climate

“If we can get faculty to … say, ‘We will do our work and commit to our share of owning this conversation,’ that’s one of the first and one of the most critical steps,” said Patrick Sims, vice provost and chief diversity officer, at that same meeting. “As it happens in the classroom, that sets a tone and precedent to occur in other spaces,” from dorm rooms to the Memorial Union Terrace.

For example, the Learning Communities for Institutional Change and Excellence (LCICE) in the DDEEA has long provided academic year and semester-long cultural competency training campuswide. Sims highlighted this training in a presentation to the Faculty Senate and Walker believes all faculty should complete it.

In recent months, UW–Madison — like other institutions across the country — has been forced to confront a series of high-profile, racially- and ethnically-charged incidents of hate and bias. With his comments, Walker hoped to demonstrate that it is the non-publicized, everyday experiences students of color and others have on and off campus that more profoundly shade their experiences and affect their ability to realize success.

“The reported acts of hate are a public spectacle, but they are a smaller part of the larger issue,” Walker said. “I want us to understand that this is a severely important issue which affects our students’ ability to be successful on this campus.”

He would know. “Good genes or otherwise,” he said, his youthful appearance means he’s often mistaken for a student of color in his transits of campus and is routinely subjected to aggression from non-minority students.

Related: Action steps for faculty and instructors to bring conversations about hate and bias into the classroom

Classroom conversations on these topics can be difficult, says Zoe Schroeder, a fifth-year senior majoring in environmental science with a global health certificate, but they can also be valuable and rewarding.

In a recent music and society class taught by musicology Professor David Crook, Schroeder said the students were tasked with participating in an activity centered around discussing difficult racial topics, like lynching, as it pertained to a class lesson.

“Our class moved our desks into groups of two, and one person expressed his or her opinions of racial topics for four minutes. The other person gave their undivided attention — they couldn’t talk, they couldn’t even nod. Then we switched roles,” Schroeder explained. “It was a little uncomfortable but I think it’s a conversation we need to have to progress as a campus and a community.”

The format of the discussion, she adds, removes the pressure some students of color report feeling because they are often looked upon as a spokesperson for all other people of color or to teach non-minority individuals about racism. “I don’t want to feel like I am a voice for all black people, because I am just one person,” Schroeder said. “It gave us a free space to say what we need to say.”

Schroeder, who describes herself as “half black,” has been asked — unprompted — by a professor on campus for her athletic schedule. She is not a student-athlete. She has been the target of racial epithets and been spit on and kicked out of parties because of the color of her skin. Schroeder follows the #therealUW on Twitter and has shared some of her experiences, including her positive classroom experience, there.

Walker also acknowledges the conversation can be difficult, but with the resources available through the DDEEA, he believes it should not be one that his colleagues — whether of color or in the majority — shy away from any longer. His department and others have already taken action to stand up against bigotry, hate and bias at UW.

For instance, incoming University Committee Chair Amy Wendt is a faculty member in the College of Engineering. She said her college has embarked on a multi-year process to provide implicit bias training to all its faculty, students and staff beginning this fall. She will also make it part of her job as committee chair to reach out to faculty across campus.

“One of the things the committee can do is try to identify ways that we can help faculty figure out how they can start to have these conversations in their classes and give out tools to get input and make it meaningful,” Wendt said. “We can help make the connections between groups developing resources and the faculty.”

The dean of students, for example, is working on material to help guide classroom conversations. The DDEEA recently hosted the first annual Deans Diversity Retreat to help set expectations around diversity and inclusion, and the Graduate School regularly hosts mixers and recognition ceremonies for students, faculty and staff of color.

In partnership with the National Diversity Council, on April 5 the university hosted the 4th Annual Women in Leadership Symposium. The Annual Fall Diversity Forum will take place in November and Sims encourages faculty to tie participation in that event to their curricula, to provide extra credit for attending, or to build course content around the experience.

Additionally, the UW held a campuswide workshop in February titled Moving Forward: Conversations on Race and Ethnic Diversity, to address key topics going forward in diversity and inclusion. The university will conduct its first-ever campuswide climate survey on diversity and implement the Diversity Inventory Project, an online, real-time system to catalog and inventory campus diversity initiatives.

A new site devoted to improving the campus climate at UW houses news, events and more aimed at improving the climate at UW–Madison. All students, faculty and staff are encouraged to visit that site regularly, to follow @UWMadison on Twitter to stay apprised of campus happenings, and to submit proposals for campus activities that promote cultural competence.  It should not be on the shoulders of minority faculty, staff and students to provide that education or build that awareness, many across campus say.

“It takes a community,” Sims said at the Faculty Senate meeting. “Having allies of the majority who are equally committed and passionate about it — not just happening on the backs of those who are numerically in the minority, but also racial and ethnically in the minority. We want everyone involved in that conversation, because everyone is part of the solution.”

Even small gestures can make a big difference, Schroeder said. At the beginning of the semester, Crook had each student fill out a notecard with their major, how they identified racially or ethnically, and how that shaped their taste in music. “It was a good icebreaker,” she said. “He got to know us as a class and genuinely cares who we are.”

At the Faculty Senate meeting at which Walker spoke, Wendt said, “you could hear a pin drop,” and he received a standing ovation when he was finished. Applause, Walker said, is often the topic of conversation in the performing arts, because the real measure of a performance’s impact is what happens when the applause is over.

In his passionate closing statement, Walker said: “Are we going to put in the action? Are we going to respond? Are we going to reach out to our students of color to let them know where we stand as individual faculty members on this issue?”