Revolutionizing Academia – Making Education Equitable and Just for All Students
A workshop given last year at the University of Kansas is still bearing fruit for the educators who took it – and their students as well.
In spring 2021, Chanelle Wilson, assistant professor of education at Bryn Mawr/Haverford Colleges, and the director of Africana Studies at Bryn Mawr College, gave a three-part workshop series at KU on “Revolutionizing Academia: Engaging Anti-Racism and Restructuring Curricular Practices.” The Center for Teaching Excellence, in conjunction with the Department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, sponsored the course.
A need for reimagining education
Pam Gordon, interim chair of the department of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at KU, said that the WGSS graduate students asked for the workshops after the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other innocent people. “Our graduate students also helped us see how our curriculum sometimes tilts too heavily toward the cis white western feminist canon,” Gordon said.
Chanelle Wilson is a scholar whose research is focused on improving the educational experiences of marginalized people. According to Wilson’s course material, "Her life’s goal is to rethink, reimagine, and revolutionize education to meet the needs of all students. She truly believes that we can all change the world for the better, together."
Wilson’s workshops focus on ways to "deepen your understanding of racism and oppressive structures in education, and learn pedagogical and curricular strategies for changing them."
The first workshop focuses on the history of colonialism and how racist ideas are ingrained in schooling and higher education; the second looks at current syllabi and classroom practices, exploring the oppressive structures that underpin them. The third workshop discusses ways to work around the oppressive structures, discover anti-racist and decolonial alternatives, and teach in a way that meets the needs of all students, making space for all to learn.
"Our jaws just dropped."
“It was like my light came on,” Horn-Marsh said. Even before the Revolutionizing Academia workshops, she understood that her teaching practices arose out of an ideology that favored students with privilege, and assumptions that supported systemic racism.
Horn-Marsh, a Deaf person, had struggled against these practices all her life: as a student, as an educator, and finally as an administrator. This teaching style “(felt) punitive to me because students who are diverse are not given the same opportunity to achieve their goals and aspirations.”
Even though this unforgiving style of teaching had not treated Horn-Marsh equitably, much of it had been ingrained in her. When Wilson talked about ways to structure their teaching approach to make course expectations more equitable and inclusive so diverse students could thrive, Horn-Marsh said “our jaws just dropped.”
Some of the teaching faculty wondered if it was possible to maintain academic standards of excellence if they gave students more options and flexibility to complete their degrees. However, during the group discussions, Horn-Marsh and her colleagues had an epiphany. “We came to realize that by valuing and respecting students’ and instructors’ voices, ideas, and needs, we are creating a community of social justice in the classroom,” she said. “It is through social justice … that students do reach the (desired) outcomes, regardless of their backgrounds.”
The key was to create equitable options for students – giving students flexibility when they needed it – so they could complete assignments, projects, and other requirements, and excel in each. In that way, academic rigor still remained, and every student would be successful – not just the privileged.
Putting good teaching to work
Educators who had participated in the workshops were later invited to join a CTE follow-up program to help apply Wilson’s strategies to their own classes. Horn-Marsh and her fellow educators used her methods in their classes, then assessed the impact the updated teaching methods had on their students’ educational experience.
One of these educators was Andrea Meyertholen, assistant professor of German Studies. She had been constantly fighting stereotypes from students that German literature meant old texts about old white men. “And, given the reading lists of the average German literature class in departments across the country, students aren't necessarily incorrect,” she added.
She said the Revolutionizing Academia workshop gave her a great opportunity to redesign her course to include literature, art, and film from diverse people and perspectives in German culture.
According to Meyertholen, finding older, diverse texts can be a challenge. “When working prior to the 20th century, it is often extremely difficult, if not at times impossible, to find or access texts written by marginalized voices – due to the systems of oppression which prevented those individuals from publishing in the first place.” To work around this, Meyertholen had her students analyze how marginalized populations were portrayed in texts written by non-marginalized people, and critically analyze the absence of marginalized populations.
Great results from a more equitable curriculum
Horn-Marsh was pleasantly surprised by the results of these equitable changes in her class. But why did they work so well? “It is simple: Students had permission to be humans,” she said. They could take one “bad day” on each assignment group, and were granted three “free” absences without having points taken off. As a result, students felt valued to invest their time towards quality discussion posts and to take risks in class discussion.
“All of the students have achieved an A or a B for a final grade,” said Horn-Marsh. “Not one student has earned a C or below as a course grade – a measurement I’ve never observed in my teaching career across all settings: Elementary, secondary, post-secondary, and college/university. I love it!”
Meyertholen, too, was impressed by the quality of work and thought exhibited by her students. “I was pleasantly surprised at the high quality of DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) sensitivity exhibited in their essays,” she said. “I will definitely be implementing these tools in future classes.”
Horn-Marsh updated her reading list in her Intersectionality and Deaf Communities course as well. The undeniable need for the practice of critical race theory led her to select textbooks and articles written by Deaf scholars and authors of diverse identities, such as DDDBDDHHLD3, BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and others. “This way,” she explained, “the revolutionized Intersectionality and Deaf Communities course will give students the opportunity to choose a reading or two that is of interest to them. Video viewings will also be offered.”
Wilson, in her workshops and webinars, wants to “promote reflection among the participants on their own positionality and practice and to engage them in thinking about the steps needed to deconstruct and reconstruct their own pedagogy and curricula in equitable, just, and inclusive ways” – a radical act of kindness and justice that makes education better for everybody.
Read more about other educational initiatives: Create a culture that communicates respect and belonging for all employees