In Summer 2022, I was part of the Provost Faculty Scholars Program that completed a 9-week Belonging & Inclusive Teaching Fundamentals fellowship with Lumen Circles. The participants were from different SUNY institutions and disciplines such as History, Anatomy & Physiology, Social Sciences, and Health & Wellness. Despite teaching different subjects, I felt an initial bond with my cohort as our facilitator held an optional Zoom meeting to help us get started on our journey. We were given a chance to introduce ourselves and share our professional and personal backgrounds. Some of us talked about our success with student engagement, while others expressed their struggles with ensuring equity in the classroom.
My main experience with Lumen Circles was two-fold. First, as we began completing the reading and assignments for each week, it became clearer how we were helping each other. For example, the Week 1 assignment asked us to discuss our hopes and fears for building a greater sense of belonging for our students. We also explored our strengths and weaknesses regarding this topic. As a sociologist, I contributed to this discussion by sharing something that had worked well for me in class. I tend to have my students exercise displaying sympathy/empathy for those who experience micro-aggressions. This is usually accomplished by asking the following example questions:
I usually get nods to all of these questions which I use as an opportunity to ask the same students to talk to their peers and learn what would be considered an appropriate response. Sometimes, they will even receive help writing down a response to practice later. I have found that this exercise helps everyone feel supported and brings them together as allies. One of my Lumen Circle fellows suggested conducting an assessment to see how everyone felt about this particular activity and then taking it from there. I thought it was a great idea and I plan on implementing it this semester.
As the fellowship progressed, it was extremely valuable to see how other disciplines deal with topics such as power, privilege, and intersectionality (to name a few) in their classrooms. One of the professors had their students take the Implicit Association Test at the start of their History course. I use it myself and did not really think about a History instructor doing it, however, it does make perfect sense. I enjoyed reading their submission regarding how they used the results in class.
Second, I felt a sense of camaraderie after seeing the determination of my fellows toward the theme of our fellowship. From where I stand, a sociologist discussing racism, intersectionality, or White privilege in their classroom, is not unusual or surprising. These topics (and others) are inherent in the curriculum and have been consistently taught for a number of years. I have an expected bond with other sociologists, but not necessarily with a professor of Nursing or Science.
For a period of time, a Social Science course was really the only course where students would focus on DEI and other related topics at a multi-layered level. That might still be true at some higher education institutions, but it is not true for all of them. As the world shrinks and our knowledge and empathy increase, we benefit from safe platforms where we can communicate our struggles and share successful techniques with one another. Educators are not perfect. It takes self-awareness and effort to make a classroom welcoming to everyone, especially when the social systems we grew up in have not always encouraged that. For instance, I engaged with Nursing faculty members in my circle, and I saw them actively working on equity and inclusion in their classrooms. While their professors might not have spoken about biases in medicine, these professors were not shying away from the topic. One of the participants wrote about an incident where they saw (and corrected) a professor exhibit bias towards a student because they had preconceived notions about the student’s home country. The participant tried their best to find guest speakers and scholars to expose students to different diverse groups and backgrounds. As a result, the fellow listened to the students and their future needs in the professional field.
Watching this process happen during the fellowship made me feel connected to my colleagues as we were working on the same objectives. The level of support I experienced during my fellowship led to a deeper self-reflection of some of my other assignments and exploration of new ideas and resources. I look forward to experimenting with the new tools I learned about from the other fellows this Fall semester.
Rebha Sabharwal, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Sociology