Report: Diversity Committee Achievements

The Diversity Committee is comprised of five members—two tenure/tenure-track faculty, one instructor, one graduate student, and one undergraduate major. These members are Dr. Cassie Smith (chair), Dr. Nikhil Bilwakesh, Dr. Mary-Margaret Popova, Stephanie Parker (graduate student representative), and Maya Perry (undergraduate English major). Our basic charge is to keep track of all the ways the department promotes diversity in terms of the classes we teach, the lectures and symposia we sponsor and academic advising. At the end of the academic year, we write up a report about the department’s diversity efforts during the current academic year.

One of the most challenging (and necessary) tasks this committee undertook was to define what we mean when we say “promote diversity.” We decided that diversity efforts are “any concerted or deliberate activities that seek to include, incorporate, and/or promote into the larger academic community members of under-represented and historically marginalized groups.” A clear definition of diversity makes it easier for members of the department to recognize when they are (or are not) promoting diversity.

In mid-March, the committee organized an hour-long diversity workshop, “Teaching Diversity, Literature, and Writing in Inclusive Classrooms.” It was an extremely informative hour led by Sarah Cantrell (faculty), David Deutsch (faculty), Cynthia Mwenja (English PhD candidate), Delia Steverson (English PhD candidate), and Maya Perry (undergraduate major). Cantrell and Mwenja did an awesome job of presenting attendees with lesson plans and diagrams for teaching hard concepts like “privilege” and “restorative” pedagogy. Deutsch reminded us that sometimes incorporating diversity is about subtlety. In addition to assigning students readings that overtly engage diverse perspectives, Deutsch encouraged us to think about all the subtle ways that diversity appears in texts in general. He challenged us to teach those subtle moments as normative rather than anomalous as a way to help students understand diverse perspectives as common place. Steverson urged us to think about diversity not just in terms of the subject matter but also in terms of the physical space of the classroom. We have all experienced difficulties with getting students to participate in class, and quite often our go-to response is to call on students to read aloud or answer a discussion prompt. But what happens if you have a student in your class with dyslexia or a severe speech impediment that makes speaking aloud in class a potentially traumatic proposition? Steverson pointed out that sometimes a student’s hesitancy to speak up in class does not signal a lack of interest or lack of preparation, and she offered a number of strategies to help us broaden our conceptions of classroom participation beyond the traditional notions of speaking aloud in class. For her part, Perry provided us with data from a survey she conducted of about 50 English majors and minors, all of whom self-identify as members of under-represented and historically marginalized groups. Perry’s survey told us that undergraduates are more or less satisfied with their experiences with diversity in the English Department but want more courses that focus on diverse writers and themes. In addition to the five presentations, the workshop also benefited from a robust discussion among all attendees about the ways we (sometimes struggle) to foster diversity in our classrooms. We asked questions and discussed strategies for addressing those tense and awkward moments that often arise when we discuss diversity. For example, what do you do when a student makes a comment that on the surface might not appear blatantly offensive but nonetheless perpetuates stereotypes? How do you create an open dialogue in the classroom while also controlling the potentially harmful rhetoric that students sometimes bring into the classroom or that we ourselves bring? Workshop attendees walked away with answers and new questions to think about as we structure our classroom spaces and manage lectures and discussions.