Syllabus diversity; class accessibility; inclusivity and accommodation: These concerns are front and center in higher education. For The University of Alabama Department of English, Lauren Cardon and Jenifer Park have helped develop programming to show practical ways that teachers can address these concerns, both in the classroom and in the campus community.
Cardon and Park are co-coordinators of the Diversity Initiative. The project began as a goal of 2019-2020 department chair, David Ainsworth “to promote efforts to integrate more diversity into our pedagogy and service,” explains Cardon, who worked with Park to develop programming ideas and a budget.
“We wanted to offer a variety of workshop topics,” explains Park. “With this series, we touched on inclusive lesson planning, both in the form of the syllabus and classroom activities. Instructor, Cade Collum, also presented on mental health awareness and how to identify students in distress.”
In addition to Collum’s workshop on student mental health, the slate included a talk on accessible syllabi from Anne-Marie Womack, and a workshop on inclusive lesson planning by Cardon. The initiative, in conjunction with First-Year Writing, had planned to bring Asao Inoue to campus in April to discuss antiracist writing ecologies. Cardon and Park are hard at work to make sure that can happen.
The workshops give attendees practical ways to emphasize diversity and inclusivity in their classrooms, but they also serve to build bridges in the UA community. Cardon and Park point out that these efforts have helped link people within the department—connecting organizations like African American Women in English and the Teachers of Color Caucus. “We explicitly noted in our budget rationale,” Cardon says, “that, by supporting one group, we hope to encourage other diversity support groups to form.” The workshops have also connected people within the department to other departments and organizations on campus. Workshop attendees have included faculty and graduate students from Gender and Race Studies, Biology, Art History, and the Teaching Hub.
That kind of coalition-building helps address the challenges to diversity in the broader UA community. Those challenges are long in their history, and they continue, as evidenced by the recent controversy surrounding the departure of Dean Jamie Riley. It is not lost on Cardon and Park that such a climate can affect the very instructors they are hoping will implement the lessons from their workshops. “It can be overwhelming to know exactly how to respond to or to engage with what is happening on campus,” Park says, “not only as a teacher, but as a community member who thinks, ‘Do I feel safe? How can I make others feel safe?’ The programming matters because of its visibility, the fact that it’s front-facing. I know that seeing such actions makes people feel better about their community.”
The front-facing element is important to Cardon, as well. “Even the fact that we have a website is important,” she explains. “Now, anyone looking to apply to graduate programs or looking to apply for a faculty position sees the diversity heading at the top of our website and immediately sees that there are already resources in the department, that we try to connect people with resources on campus, and that we have events and programming on the events calendar. That sends a clear signal that we care about these issues of gender identity, racism, and ableism.”
In addition to the workshop series, Cardon and Park have worked to bring other programming to UA as well. These include the Student Voices session, Birmingham City School outreach, and a push for funding for instructor and graduate student diversity stipends. This last initiative connects directly to the workshop series, as applicants are encouraged to explain how they incorporated workshop material into their classrooms.
Cardon and Park both look forward to continuing such efforts in the future. Moving forward, Park hopes that “our efforts are more student-centric but also speak to our lives as teachers and members of the department. We want our undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty to feel safe.”
“I am hoping that faculty and graduate students vocalize concerns, regarding areas they’d like to improve upon and ways to become more conscientious,” Cardon explains. “Sometimes, people feel nervous to ask questions about diversity pedagogy because it is not part of most higher-ed pedagogical training programs. I would like to hear from faculty about their specific concerns, things they’d like to be better at or more conscientious about.”
We are all anxious to see a time when everyone can return safely to campus. Cardon’s and Park’s work will help ensure that, when we do return, everyone means everyone.