Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

November 8, 2016

Curriculum Transformation: Integrating diversity and fostering an inclusive classroom

This feature is part of the 2016-2017 report series produced by the Office of the Provost in partnership with the Race & Equity Initiative. Feature articles will be released throughout fall and winter. Themes for the series include examining how the University of Washington is committed to improving equity and access throughout major University systems and processes, and how these can be transformed, with the goal of eliminating institutional racism.

At the University of Washington, curriculum transformation is a process that asks faculty members to take a critical stance on power and difference in the classroom, interweave multiple perspectives, and integrate student voices and knowledge into the learning process.

“The Diversity Blueprint and the Diversity Requirement set goals for change at the university level, but within each classroom, curriculum transformation is an opportunity for each instructor to create a thoughtful and equitable space for learning and to do so with support from instructional experts,” says Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs.

Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs

Ed Taylor, vice provost and dean of Undergraduate Academic Affairs

Curriculum transformation has a long history at UW, including the Center for Curriculum Transformation which aided faculty from 1993 until 2013, largely under the Office of Minority Affairs & Diversity. Today the Center for Teaching & Learning in Undergraduate Academic Affairs offers guidance in areas of inclusive teaching and other best practices.

Goal 3: Provide Rich Learning Experiences and Prepare Students for Global Citizenship
Diversity Blueprint

Now, as then, academic units come to curriculum transformation with different needs and levels of understanding. Individual professors may vary in their comfort with discussing racial equity or connecting it to their classroom teaching topics.

Consequently, units adopt different methods for undertaking this work to fulfill Diversity Blueprint Goal 3, as the School of Public Health and the iSchool demonstrate.

The School of Public Health: Building a New Core Competency

The School of Public Health has a long history of awareness and activism in regards to institutional racism, and in 2016 passed a new school-wide competency specifically addressing the effects of racism on public health. India Ornelas, assistant professor of Health Services and chair of the School of Public Health Diversity Committee, dates the origin of this competency to a 2014 workshop that activated participants to undo institutional racism. Many began looking critically at the school’s curriculum.

The School of Public Health’s new core competency requires all students to be able to: “Recognize the means by which social inequities and racism, generated by power and privilege, undermine health.”

The first result was a one-credit course that addresses the effects of race, power and privilege on public health – which remains popular enough to have a wait-list every quarter. Soon it became clear that a greater commitment was needed: Public Health students in the course advocated that its concepts were equally vital to the school’s broader curriculum.

“We realized that we needed to have the recognition of racism’s effects on public health be institutionalized in our competencies to ensure that all students received it as part of their curriculum,” says Ornelas.

For more than a year, multiple committees vetted several draft proposals of the new competency. The process required stakeholder involvement at every level. In a coordinated leadership effort, the school-wide Diversity Committee and Curriculum Committee worked together for the first time.

“The big leap was going from something that was voluntary and largely master’s students to having all degree plans required to meet this,” says Ornelas, who cites three key factors that helped Public Health approve the competency.

Earn department buy-in by listening, educating and asking questions
“It’s really important to bring people in from the beginning, and get the whole community behind you,” says Ornelas.

The School needed approval from all departments to pass the competency. Diversity Committee members worked to connect with people at every unit level by attending meetings with departments, committees and individuals. Within those spaces, Ornelas said, committee representatives were often called to educate in real time, responding to questions about the purpose and relevance of the proposal.

India Ornelas, chair of the School of Public Health's diversity committee, in a meeting to discuss curriculum transformation

India Ornelas (far right), chair of the School of Public Health’s diversity committee, in a meeting to discuss curriculum transformation.

Ornelas says, “We talked through all of these issues. Some departments thought their students don’t need to know this. We asked, ‘Do you want your students to be able to work across difference? Do you want them to be able to understand racism as a social determinant of health? Do you want them to be able to work with diverse research teams?’ We had to convince them that no matter what environment you’re working in, race and equity issues are happening, and your students will have to understand how racism works.”

Out of the conversations, individuals became ambassadors for the competency within their units. Slowly the school’s communities reached consensus.

Students lead as activists, committee members and counselors
Students drove the work at all levels. Schoolwide activism helped push the competency forward, while individual student representatives advocated within department committees.

“This requirement is important because it not only interjects these topics into the curriculum and community discussion, but also provides a source of accountability for faculty, staff, and students to acknowledge that we are responsible for addressing these issues. This competency will help propagate a generation of public health professionals who continually seek to address social inequities and racism in health.”

In addition to higher-profile actions, many students provided feedback in discussions with staff and faculty throughout the year.

Communicate about progress
With 5 departments, the school’s approval process can be long and cumbersome. Ornelas recommends designating a web page to regularly update internal stakeholders. Colleges and schools undertaking similar efforts should set clear plans to provide transparent communications in-person and online, since information-sharing builds trust in the process.

In the end, the school became one of the nation’s first public health programs to enact such a requirement.

“I’m very proud of the stand that people in the curriculum committees and diversity committees took, saying that the importance here is naming racism, power and privilege,” says Ornelas.

The work done in the UW School of Public Health influenced the Council on Education for Public Health, the accrediting body for schools that offer the Master of Public Health. Now, as a requirement, all graduates of accredited schools will be able to: “Discuss the means by which structural bias, social inequities and racism undermine health and create challenges to achieving health equity at organizational, community and societal levels.”

The iSchool: Curriculum Transformation Project

Cynthia Del Rosario, diversity programs advisor, leads the iSchool’s Curriculum Transformation Project (CTP).

Cynthia Del Rosario, diversity programs adviser and leader of the iSchool's Curriculum Transformation Project

Cynthia Del Rosario, diversity programs adviser and leader of the iSchool’s Curriculum Transformation Project

Undoing institutional racism requires individuals to look inward and be vulnerable; Del Rosario knew that faculty would need trusted partners to turn to for support. As a result, she based the program around fostering mentorship relationships.

CTP builds partnerships between community members who have expertise in diversity practices and faculty who teach core classes. The iSchool uses its network and alumni to identify potential experts. Each quarter, Del Rosario recruits three to four people who can help integrate diversity into curricula and pedagogy. She then matches each with one or two faculty members based on subject matter expertise and compatible learning styles.

“We try to keep partners consistent [from year to year], so they understand our culture,” she says.

Over the quarter, expert partners support instructors in planning and implementing techniques to diversify their curriculum and make their classrooms more inclusive spaces. Step-by-step support includes:

  • Orientation meeting: Del Rosario creates time for people to connect before the quarter and organizes activities to introduce concepts of microaggressions and privilege. This helps everyone develop a shared understanding and common ground – even if participants have been through the program before. Then each instructor meets with their partner to look at how syllabi, course content and activities can be adjusted to be more inclusive. Together, they create an action plan and discuss potential challenges and opportunities.
  • The impact of the curriculum transformation project on iSchool students cannot be underestimated.”

    Harry Bruce
    Dean, Information School

  • Observations: Partners observe the teachers twice, near the beginning and end of the quarter. Partners can also participate in class if they and the instructor agree it’s appropriate. Throughout the quarter, experts are available to answer questions or discuss emerging situations. Because of the consistent nature of the partnership, “If something happens in a class, the partners already have context,” says Del Rosario.
  • Debriefing: At the end of the quarter, the partners and instructors discuss lessons learned. They can base their reflection around guidelines Del Rosario developed to offer a sense of structure, but she emphasizes flexibility and freedom. “We say: ‘Do it how it’s going to work for you,’” Del Rosario says. “It’s not about reporting back or what it looks like on paper, it’s about how the partner can help the faculty best.”

An opt-in approach
The Curriculum Transformation Project formed with full support from iSchool leadership as an opt-in, grassroots-driven program that best fit their culture.

Del Rosario first invited instructors who previously expressed interest in diversifying their curriculum, then relied on their recommendations and testimonials to recruit additional faculty as the project continued. A self-selecting program, CTP regularly reaches out to faculty who teach iSchool core classes and encourages them to participate.

“The impact of the curriculum transformation project on iSchool students cannot be underestimated,” says Harry Bruce, dean of the iSchool. “We are educating and preparing information professionals who will serve and engage underrepresented and underserved communities and promote information equity throughout their careers.”

Different methods for lasting change

There are many ways for a unit to undertake curriculum transformation. As these two schools demonstrate, open communication and mutual respect will always be key ingredients.

“There are a lot of ways to the top of the mountain,” says Del Rosario. “You pick up more people along the way when you build relationships. We want results but it’s more important that it’s right by people.”

The process of curriculum transformation may move slowly, but it offers the lasting impact of a more welcoming and inclusive environment — for everyone.