UVA profs taught to reflect 'diversity and inclusion' in syllabi

Instead of focusing solely on their coursework, University of Virginia professors are being asked to inspect their syllabi for non-inclusive subtextual messages.

As part of the university-wide “Directors of Diversity and Inclusion” initiative, three visiting faculty members held a workshop for UVA professors last week, where they reviewed course syllabi and provided feedback for identifying and excising “bias” from both the learning goals and language, according to The Cavalier Daily.

[RELATED: UMass prof shoehorns social justice into every class]

“There are all sorts of ways in which biases, even by the best intentioned people, can kind of creep into things,” explained Prof. John O’Brien, Director of Diversity and Inclusion (DDI) for the English Department. “Just having an observer who is just there, who’s charged specifically with listening and thinking about these things—that’s basically the job.”

The DDI initiative is funded by U.Va. CHARGE, an organization that promotes gender inclusivity in the sciences, through a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE Program. The initiative aims to promote diversity and inclusion by targeting its efforts at individuals, rather than through top-down policy changes, and every academic department at UVA is eventually intended to have its own designated DDI.

[RELATED: Dartmouth to spend $145M promoting diversity, inclusion]

Professors who attended the workshop were given a survey asking them to consider six aspects of their classes: people, content, relevance, pedagogy, values, and climate.

Carol Mershon, a politics professor and member of the DDI steering committee, framed the self-evaluation explicitly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“We really have an opportunity to change the situation for students of color who don’t find professors who look like them,” she remarked. “If a faculty member can create this space for discussion in the classroom of events that are traumatic, that’s really important.”

Both Mershon and O’Brien praised the experience effusively, predicting that it would facilitate the efforts of individual Directors to nudge their faculty towards embracing social justice.

[RELATED: KU Multicultural Student Gov demands ‘social justice education’ in all classes]

“Not only did I learn from the three people who led the workshop—although I certainly, certainly did—but also from my colleagues, the faculty who attended, in ways that I didn’t expect,” Mershon observed, adding that she hopes to incorporate lessons from the workshop into her own efforts as DDI for the social sciences department.

“I think that would allow for different people who have—who are equally talented but communicate in different ways—to be able to communicate their insights well and for everybody,” she concluded.

O’Brien focused more on the accountability the DDI initiative engenders, arguing that charging one person with implementing a relatively small portion of the school’s overall efforts helps to prevent the problems associated with diffuse responsibility.

[RELATED: USC student gov simultaneously demands tuition freeze, $20M in diversity spending]

“Unless someone is designated to be particularly accountable and responsible, it’s way too easy for things to slide, or for people to assume it will be taken care of by someone else,” he explained. “I try to think about the inclusion aspect. How do we go about creating a community where everyone feels like they have a stake and everyone is included in the stake that is the success of the community?”

Another element of the DDI initiative is to increase the diversity of new faculty hires, Mershon noted, saying, “We really have an opportunity to change the situation for students of color who don’t find professors who look like them.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @TylerArnold18