Count everyone in
First Carolina Conversations session explores students’ comfort in the classroom
About 105 people – a roughly equal mix of students, faculty and staff – came to the Student Union’s Aquarium Lounge on Sept. 19 to be a part of the first Carolina Conversations session of the new academic year. And by the end of the 90-minute program, everyone had been heard, in some form or another.
It wasn’t hard to pick the first Conversations topic, Chancellor Carol L. Folt said. Faculty members and graduate instructors alike want to know how they can make the classroom “a wonderful place to be, where discussions, sometimes difficult, can take place, where we can advance our knowledge,” she said, adding that students are interested in learning in that environment, too.
Rumay Alexander, interim chief diversity officer, introduced the leaders of the day’s conversation: Kelly Hogan, director of instructional innovation for the College of Arts and Sciences and senior STEM lecturer in the biology department, and Viji Sathy, a senior lecturer in the psychology department and special projects assistant to the senior associate dean for undergraduate education.
Hogan and Sathy led the session on inclusive classrooms much as they would one of the interactive classes they have designed. Each had a microphone, and they took turns leading the discussion and giving out assignments.
As in their classes, Hogan and Sathy provided different communications channels for participants. Even as the moderators spoke, roaming through the U-shaped seating arrangements designed for six to eight people to face one another easily, they urged participants to take an online poll on the meaning of “inclusive classroom.” During the course of the program, participants answered questions by raising their hands, writing on index cards and sticky notes, reading aloud to the larger group and discussing topics face-to-face in their small groups.
What was being said was important, but just as important was feeling comfortable saying it. The moderators tried to ensure this by providing the group a “working agreement” or the ground rules for the discussion.
“Don’t assume. Be mindful. Be flexible and extend yourself,” Sathy said.
Then Hogan asked that people describe when they felt included or excluded in class, but without mentioning names. Participants wrote their responses on index cards and then had to switch note cards two or three times outside their own circles to maintain the writer’s anonymity.
“Don’t assume. Be mindful.
Be flexible and extend yourself.”
“What we really want you to do is to help us identify as many great ideas that we can all read together and have a conversation around,” Hogan said. After discussions in the small groups, a representative from each came to the front of the room to share one or two comments. Then Hogan asked the groups to focus on one of the ideas mentioned and brainstorm for a few minutes.
One small group decided to wrestle with the notion of what it means to feel uncomfortable in class.
“Is being comfortable necessary? Is it required in the classroom for all students to be comfortable?” asked Buck Goldstein, University Entrepreneur in Residence and professor of the practice in the economics department. “In some ways, I think our job as professors is to make students uncomfortable.”
“I think it depends on what the comfort level is about,” said Gar Yeung, a graduate student who came here from Georgia Tech.
The students then shared examples of when they might feel uncomfortable: being asked a question they’re not prepared for, being required to speak up at least once in each class session, being the new person in a very small class.
Rita Balaban, also an economics professor, said that faculty members have a reason for making students uncomfortable. “We want to challenge their views,” she said. Exposing students to new ways of thinking is an important part of education, the faculty members agreed.
The students said they understood that, but still worried that some of their classmates might feel they were under attack.
“Maybe they need a safe place to be uncomfortable,” suggested senior Hannah Angle.
Similar discussions occurred simultaneously in pockets all around the lounge. As with most topics, not everyone agreed on a solution. Some people liked the idea of starting the year by having everyone tell the rest of the class the pronouns they preferred to be called by. But another group said that forcing the issue might unintentionally out transgender students. Some thought it was a good idea to acknowledge another person’s culture, but the person being recognized didn’t want it to be done in a stereotypical way. They also didn’t want to be treated as a representative or spokesperson for a whole culture.
What people around the room agreed on most was that everyone needed to keep talking to one another.
On their way out, participants stuck notes with their ideas on the glass wall of the lounge, leaving behind a bright rainbow of ways to make classrooms more inclusive.