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September 29, 1994

Seminars focus on cultural diversity in the classroom

Changing student enrollment and an increase in cultural diversity have made the modern classroom a place where some students feel affirmed and others devalued.

For example, research has shown that when the instructor and class materials provide no information on the roles that women and minorities have played in the advancement or history of that subject, women and minority students in the class feel left out.

"One of things that we want to discuss with faculty and help faculty do is to work with their curriculum so that it really is representative of the student population," says Jane Margolis, research assistant professor in Pitt's women's studies program.

To accomplish that goal and others associated with teaching a culturally diverse student body, the women's studies program, the Office of Faculty Development, and the Center for Teaching and Learning are sponsoring a series of four seminars on teaching for cultural diversity for faculty members, research fellows and administrators.

The diversity seminars, which began on Sept. 23, are centered around the book "Teaching for Diversity," a collection of articles on diversity in teaching edited by Laura Borden and Nancy Van Note Chism. According to Margolis, the book has been used in faculty seminars on diversity at colleges and universities across the country and has been found to be very effective.

Discussions during the seminars will range from the use of language in the classroom, such as the use of the generic "he" instead of "he" and "she" when appropriate, to curriculum issues, to philosophical issues about what is worthy of study and from what cultural perspective a subject is being taught.

Margolis and Carla Gary, assistant to the dean for Affirmative Action of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, will convene the seminars.

Margolis believes they are the first such seminars on teaching for diversity conducted at Pitt. Twenty faculty members, teaching fellows and administrators have registered for the seminars. However, the enrollment is unbalanced.

"The hope is that departments throughout the University will become aware of the issues involved in teaching for diversity, but so far most of the interest has come from the humanities and very little from the sciences," says Margolis. "Also, more women than men appear to be interested in diversity issues." Among the issues Margolis and Gary plan to focus on during the seminars is how to reach faculty members in departments throughout the University. They are particularly interested in reaching people in the sciences, where teaching methods by and large continue to be geared mainly toward white, middle class males. "One issue that is going to be brought up are different ways to maybe find one person in the sciences who is interested and have that one person come to the seminar and then start their own seminar in the sciences," says Margolis.

While a great deal of research is currently going on around the country involving women in the sciences, according to Margolis, an awareness of an inequality in terms of student enrollment in the sciences is growing at a much slower rate.

She says that teachers nowadays know that sexist and racist remarks should not be made in the classroom, but they also need to be made aware that there is a culture being taught by the way a curriculum is presented.

"One of the things we want to talk about is innovation of course design to think about how the sciences could be made attractive to women or to students of color," Margolis notes.

At Stanford University, for instance, it was found that women weren't enrolling in economics courses because economic data as it was being presented did not involve people and was very removed from the human situation.

In hopes of correcting that situation, Stanford began a team-teaching economics course using a literature professor and an economics professor. To stimulate the interest of women, the team uses works of literature to discuss various aspects of economics.

"They get to economics and markets through literature and it has been very successful," Margolis says.

Another institution where the team-teaching technique has worked is Wellesley College. There a science course is taught by a scientist who addresses the technical aspects of the subject and a sociologist who looks at the social issues surrounding the subject, prominent women scientists of the past and the issue of why women avoid the sciences.

"They have tried to really contextualize the material and make it much more interdisciplinary and make it much less narrow and more humane," Margolis explains. "They have found that to be very attractive to women students. I think the same thing could be done with students of color." Research into learning styles and the learning preferences of women versus men and minority students versus white middle class students also shows that many women and minority students have a "field sensitive" learning style, meaning they generally respond best when the subject is placed in a context or related to a student's own experience.

White middle class male students, on the other hand, prefer "field independent" learning, which is more abstracted from experience. The field independent style, essentially lectures in which the professor assumes authority and there is little collaboration, continues to be the most often used teaching style. Acquainting faculty members with more collaborative learning styles that involve group discussions and group projects, and are not as competitively driven as the traditional lecture method of teaching, is another goal of the seminars. "For faculty who have questions about their own curriculum or own teaching style, this is an opportunity to share across departments and to talk to each other about what they are doing and what their experiences have been," Margolis says. "Many faculty seem to feel isolated in their own teaching dilemmas and we want to bring these issues into a group discussion. We want to talk about not just what is taught, but also how it is taught." The current series of seminars is a first step in making faculty members more aware of cultural diversity in their classrooms. If there is enough interest, a second set of four seminars will be offered.

Also, a more intensive seminar on diversity is being developed by women's studies for this summer.

"A lot of work is going to go into getting faculty members from across the University representatives of the different disciplines to take part," says Margolis about the summer seminars. "They will come into the seminars with their curriculum as is, work with it and come out with a transformed curriculum." Information on teaching for diversity seminars is available from the women's studies office at 624-6485.

–Mike Sajna

Filed under: Feature,Volume 27 Issue 3

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