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January 20, 2005

Diversity: Annual Seminar Helps Faculty to Look at Their Courses, Teaching in a More Inclusive Light

What do racial and gender diversity have to do with teaching math, science and other traditionally objective disciplines?

That’s the $64,000 question, said Valerie Carr Copeland, who this spring will co-direct the provost’s faculty diversity seminar for the third time.

Copeland, an associate professor in the School of Social Work and a faculty affiliate at the Center for Minority Health in the Graduate School of Public Health, was a 1997 participant in the annual seminar, at which faculty review and revise undergraduate courses to integrate issues of diversity.

Initially called the faculty seminar for more inclusive courses, the faculty diversity seminar celebrated its 10-year anniversary last October, with a reunion luncheon for the diversity fellows, as those who complete the seminar are designated.

More than 90 faculty have signed up for the intensive two-week seminar, where participants, regardless of discipline, dissect their undergrad courses, drawing on the intellectual and practical resources of fellow participants, relevant literature, speakers and local visiting experts. Faculty also do research during the seminar to expand and update their selection of readings and assignments.

The goal of the seminar is to make faculty aware of key aspects of diversity in both classroom content and pedagogy, without sacrificing the rigor and standards required in their field.

“Diversity, of course, has many meanings and levels, especially as it has come more and more into the public consciousness,” Copeland said. “But because we have limited time, we focus intensely on race and gender issues. Those are the mainstays of the readings and the discussions.”

Faculty who apply for the seminar are screened by the seminar’s advisory committee, a group of 10 faculty and staff who also review the seminar’s reading list, choose the visiting speakers and evaluate the seminar.

In 2003, a survey of participants from the first eight years resulted in many favorable comments, according to Joanne Nicoll, associate director of the Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education, which provides instructional materials and assists in the coordination of the seminar.

The seminar format has instructors defending the content and methods of one of their undergrad courses, with the goal of revamping the curriculum and syllabus to better incorporate issues of diversity.


Many of the participants over the years have come from disciplines that are more fact-oriented, Copeland said. While there is a modicum of skepticism about the relevance of diversity issues in certain disciplines, faculty for the most part “see the light” as the seminar goes forward.

Kirk Savage, associate professor and chair of the Department of History of Art and Architecture, concurred with that.

“The seminar really opened my eyes,” said Savage, who attended the first diversity seminar in 1995 to restructure his lecture course, Introduction to American Art. “It was the first seminar in pedagogy of any kind I’d ever had. There was nothing like it in graduate school. So, it was my first time to talk with other faculty on how they teach, and right away I learned some useful exercises. There were lots of impressive people with great ideas and advice.”

One tip was from a veteran teacher of a large psychology lecture course, he said. “He had small-group discussions built into the course structure. I didn’t even think that was possible, until I tried it, and now it’s old hat to me.”

Savage said he’d had the traditional training in American art history: “You know, start with the Puritans in New England and focus on European settlers and their movements west. I wanted to change the course from the traditional context of Anglo-American art. My two goals were, first, to stretch the body of work demographically, to cover more artists,” including slaves, women and Native Americans, he said.

This required a lot of additional research on his part, he said, something the seminar accommodated. “I didn’t know much about Native American practices, for example. So learning that, stretches me, but that’s what scholarship is all about,” Savage said.

“The second and more important goal was to focus on how art from different kinds of cultures interacts and conflicts, how art connects with the worlds of politics and power. Now I think of it as a multiple-culture course. When we search for something ‘distinctly American,’ what does that mean? For centuries it meant ‘white male.’ I wanted to relate the material to the present day and to the students’ lives, to make them more aware that we live in an increasingly diverse society. I hope they take that away with them.”

According to projected population statistics, the majority of the U.S. population in the not-too-distant future will be non-white, Copeland pointed out. “We need to prepare students to live in the real world where you won’t always be in the majority,” she said. “We talk about how to approach diversity as a win-win situation.”

Among the techniques reinforced by the seminar is presenting material in a nontraditional way, Copeland said. “For example, Whose voice are you using? Whether it’s a book, or a reading or a film assignment, is it always the traditional European-American voice that’s the messenger? Are there people of color – heroines, speakers, writers – who can give the same content in a different voice?”

Finding that different voice most times means extra work for the faculty, she pointed out. “But the commitment to diversity and to change is going to require change and work,” she said. “Library time for research is provided during the seminar. Another great benefit of the seminar is that is does allow faculty to upgrade their skills and knowledge.”

A second area of discussion aids teachers in arriving at a comfort level. “Diversity is never a wasted message, but sometimes it’s the messenger who is anxious, and the students pick up on that,” Copeland said. “Clearly, talking about race is an emotional, anxiety-driven subject and that’s true to a certain extent for gender as well. Part of the battle is for teachers themselves to become comfortable with these themes, to alleviate those concerns and anxiety.”

Reinhard Heinisch, associate professor of political science at the Johnstown campus, brought his American Political Process course to the seminar for evaluation.

“At that time I taught it as a survey course with fairly standardized material that you get from standard texts. Of course, we cover Congress and different institutions in government,” Heinisch said.

A 1998 seminar veteran who now serves on the seminar’s advisory board, Heinisch said, “The way I was teaching the course, civil rights would be maybe one chapter that took up a week. Now I introduce the theme much earlier and we follow it along for the semester. ‘Keep an eye on this,’ I tell my students, to see the origin of the movement in its earliest forms and implications. It’s a matter of how much weight do you put on institutions as opposed to people and values,” he said.

“If you emphasize people and values first, you get more of a sense of diversity. And when you talk about institutions, you can go deeper: What values went into forming this institution? Where did those values come from? What perspectives do they represent? Is anyone excluded?”

Heinisch now regularly brings in speakers of various backgrounds, including an African-American federal district attorney who speaks about civil rights from experience. “I think here on the regional campuses we have much less exposure to minorities in general than maybe is found in Oakland,” he said. “You learn from this kind of exposure yourself. I also learned that the way you talk, the examples you use, can bring out material through experiences.”

Speaking as a member of the advisory committee, Heinisch said that one of the dilemmas of the seminar is to narrow the focus to fit into the University’s meaning of diversity, its policies and its goals. “For example, you can have diversity of political opinions, but that’s not really what we mean here,” he said. “Regardless of your field, I do feel the experience of the seminar – two intense weeks of back and forth – changes you. The discussions are stimulating, but practical and grounded, not all theoretical. When you return to your campus or to your department, you serve as an ambassador of these messages to your colleagues.”

Faculty in cultural studies or communication arts may have a leg up on those from disciplines that are grounded in more objective material, such as biology or statistics, he said, because diversity themes have been part of their curriculum for some time. “The seminar benefits both groups, but we try to reach out to less traditional areas, to get junior faculty just starting their careers who are looking for direction, and may be more ready to change or take advice.”

According to Copeland, “We always have to take into account the canon of the discipline, and the fact there is only so much time in a course to cover what is necessary. The challenge is how not to give away any of the content, but to include new elements, new ways of presenting the material.”

As an example, she cited an engineering professor who taught a course in transportation issues. By the seminar’s end, he had restructured his course by designing projects and assignments that required students to go out into a minority community to get the pulse of the people.

“This was new for him, to have assignments that told students to go ask residents what changes might mean to them, whether it’s a redesign of streets or changes in traffic congestion or new bus routes,” Copeland said. “The new spin was to meet face to face with people of color. What any changes will mean to the them, to measure the community impact. Students are learning all the regular things that the discipline requires, but within a new way of presenting the material that gives them the exposure they would not otherwise have.”

Ann Mitchell, assistant professor of nursing, said the seminar informed her way of presenting research methodology, in addition to enhancing her other courses.

“I brought my Nursing Research course to the seminar,” she said. “It’s a generic introductory course. What I learned from having a wider variety of readings that include diversity issues is drawing things out of that and applying them to delivery of care and really to all areas of my teaching.”

Although the seminar focuses primarily on race and gender issues, Mitchell applies the same thinking to other groups, such as the homeless, the uninsured and those who are under-severed by the health care system.

“When you talk about research, it isn’t only numbers,” she pointed out. “You have to ask, What was the sample? When you use that sample in research, what does that mean? Could the results be generalized? Why or why not? These are cross-cultural issues that come out in the way one does research.”

She said the seminar prompted her to encourage more participation in classes. “The more voices, the better,” she’s found. “I also learned to be more inclusive in my own language, the way I speak in class. The benefit is that the students have a model for that that they can follow. It influences their behavior. Much of the feedback I get is from students saying they appreciated this expanded approach.”

Based in part on her seminar experience, Mitchell, who holds a secondary appointment in psychology, was asked to design an Arts and Sciences course called Comparative Issues in Cross-Cultural Health Care. “We totally focus on world-wide diversity issues,” she said. “This is an expansion of what I learned in the seminar, and I continue to learn. I absolutely learned as much in the seminar’s two weeks as I teach in any one course,” she said, only half-joking.

Copeland said that leading the seminar is a natural transition from her research, scholarship and community work, which has focused on minority health issues and mental health disparities in service delivery, program planning and treatment engagement for women and children.

“The way you use examples in your teaching; when you say ‘Let’s think about health care.’ Students know it’s a big issue, but how do they get a handle on it?” she pointed out.

“Well, let’s think about health care provision. Let’s divide it by population group. What is the relationship between the health care provider and the client population? When you start to show that treatments vary based on your social identity – whether you’re Caucasian or African American, whether you’re poor or well-off – what does that say?

“That can be difficult for students,” she acknowledged. “They start to ask, ‘Where does this information come from?’ and they’ll challenge you. Actually, you hope for that, because it means they’re listening, for one thing, and they’re learning to raise questions appropriately about evidence and research, yet it’s in the context of race or gender or cultural or social issues.”

The seminar is very much about practical applications of theoretical material, she added “I think of myself as a facilitator,” Copeland said of her role leading the seminar, “because we’re all equals here. We’re all faculty members trying to learn about improving our courses and our teaching.”


The provost’s faculty diversity seminar, held at Alumni Hall in May, ordinarily is limited to 10 faculty members.

Provost funding for this seminar includes a participant honorarium of $1,500, as well as payment for the course co-directors, administrative support, all course materials and instructional costs, continental breakfast and several lunches.

The seminar does not provide funding for travel, housing and the remaining meal costs.

For more information, including application procedures and deadlines, access:

-Peter Hart

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