Institutional statements related to diversity, equity, and inclusion are only meaningful if all practices within the institution embody these values. In this episode, Gabriela Torres joins us to discuss how we can become anti-racist educators and do the work of inclusion within our classrooms.
Gabriela is the Associate Provost for Academic Administration and Faculty Affairs and is a Professor and the William Isaac Cole Chair in Anthropology at Wheaton College. She specializes in the study of violence – particularly gender-based violence – and state formation. At Wheaton College, she teaches courses in Medical Anthropology, Global Health, Violence Against Women, and Latin America and Latinx Studies. She is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus.
- Neuhaus, Jessamyn (2022). Picture a Professor: Interrupting Biases about Faculty and Increasing Student Learning. West Virginia University Press.
- Gabriela Torres et. al. (2022). The Change Higher Education Needs Today. Inside Higher Ed.
- Posse Foundation
- Sathy, V., & Hogan, K. A. (2022). Inclusive teaching: Strategies for promoting equity in the college classroom.
John: Institutional statements related to diversity, equity, and inclusion are only meaningful if all practices within the institution embody these values. In this episode, we examine how we can become anti-racist educators and do the work of inclusion within our classrooms.
John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.
Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…
John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…
Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.
John: Our guest today is Gabriela Torres. Gabriela is the Associate Provost for Academic Administration and Faculty Affairs and is a Professor and the William Isaac Cole Chair in Anthropology at Wheaton College. She specializes in the study of violence – particularly gender-based violence – and state formation. At Wheaton College, she teaches courses in Medical Anthropology, Global Health, Violence Against Women, and Latin America and Latinx Studies. She is also the author of a chapter in Picture a Professor, edited by Jessamyn Neuhaus. Welcome, Gabriela.
Gabriela: Thank you for having me.
Rebecca: Today’s teas are:… Gabriela, are you drinking any tea?
Gabriela: Yes, I’m drinking ginger tea.
Rebecca: Mmmm… love ginger tea. How about you, John?
John: I am drinking, on that theme, a ginger peach black tea.
Rebecca: Not on that theme, [LAUGHTER] I’m drinking a blend called eight at the fort.
John: You ate at the fort?
Rebecca: No, like, the number eight? It’s a blend.
Gabriela: What does that have?
Rebecca: I don’t know but it’s tasty. [LAUGHTER]
John: Is there some gunpowder green tea in there or something?
Rebecca: I don’t know what the eight are but it’s a good blend, it tastes yummy.
John: We’ve invited you here to discuss your chapter in Picture a Professor entitled “Beyond Making Statements: The Reflective Practice of Becoming an Anti-Racist Educator.” Could you tell us a bit about how this chapter came about?
Gabriela: Sure. This chapter came about when I was working as Director for our Center for Teaching and Learning, which is the job I did before my current job as Associate Provost. And during that work, we experienced the George Floyd murder, and our faculty were really impacted and wanted to think about how we could do something different. And what we found as CCTL directors was that there really wasn’t a lot of really basic how to… how do you go about thinking about changing your pedagogical practice, really at the level… “How do you start thinking about what teaching is about? What is the purpose of teaching? Who are you teaching for? Is it possible to have any redemptive practice in your teaching? Are there harms that we’re doing through expected notions of ‘I need the students to give me this assignment at this time, I need the students to achieve this level. This assignment, I need the students to do this, because this is the way that the expectations have been set for my discipline.’” And I think professors at our institution were thinking, “Could there be harms associated with these expectations that are taken as a fact and aren’t really questions?” So thinking about how do we start from scratch is where this chapter got started. And the idea of reflective practice being at the center came from the common readings we were doing on what does it mean to engage in anti-racist practice and that anti- racist practice really has to start with thinking within ourselves. How do the things that I do in my classroom and outside of it contribute to entrenched inequalities in higher ed, what is my responsibility in terms of changing those entrenched inequalities? And so those were all the kinds of questions that we began with.
Rebecca: If you’re going to make suggestions to faculty about getting started, about having those conversations with themselves, about what teaching is, what are some of the ways that we get started in this work?
Gabriela: I think we need to look at expectations. Who do we expect is in our classroom? And what characteristics we attribute to that person who we think is in our classroom, that generic person who we’re teaching to? So that’s one area that we really need to question and the kinds of questions we need to ask are, “Is there a gendered and race expectation for the person I assume I’m teaching in my classroom?” And, “where might those expectations have been set for me? Have I even asked myself this question?” And that’s one area of questions you can start thinking about. Another area of questions you can start thinking about is content. So where does the content in let’s say, in my case, Introduction to Anthropology, where does the content for introduction to anthropology come from? Is it a canon that you learned yourself when you were an undergrad? And that you want to make sure that students receive the same canon you did? Have you considered who is actually part of that canon? Have you thought about whether the experiences of students in your classrooms are reflected in the readings that you have? The third area, where I think we need to start asking questions, is around “What are the objectives for the classroom?” And by this, I don’t just mean learning objectives. But what are the objectives in terms of social good that we’re trying to enact in our classrooms? So we are trying to create students that are enabled to make change. And if we are trying to do that, if our objective is an objective that is about going towards a future society, then we really need to think about how we’re structuring those courses. And what does social justice in the course look like? I think it’s really easy to say to colleagues, you should have more authors of color in your syllabus, or you should make sure that you discuss underrepresented groups as part of the content. But I think that doesn’t get you to the reflection that’s really needed to think about “What is our role in higher ed in terms of the social good that higher ed is meant to have?” And actually, probably the reason why many of us got into these jobs in the first place, so that we could actually educate the next generations. And so I think thinking of anti-racism as a reflective practice gets us further than just thinking of anti-racism as a sort of simple retooling that we’re doing, really, almost for performative purposes.
Rebecca: As a designer, what you’re saying is really resonating, because it reflects some of the design framework that I’ve even been talking to my students about recently, is like, you’re probably not the audience. So who is the audience? And they’re not some imaginary fake person with a fake value system. They’re they’re real people that have real goals, and they’re definable in a way. And I’m also hearing a philosophy that I like to talk to students about, which is “do no harm.” I’m hearing like, that resonating. When I’m thinking about some of the things that you’re saying. It’s interesting that the same ideas come up in different contexts, when we’re designing different kinds of experiences, to really be considering and thinking about them as questions to reframe what we’re doing, and maybe make some things explicit. We’re talking about not just learning objectives, but I was hearing you say, well, there’s things out there hidden objectives, perhaps, that we don’t make explicit. So is making those explicit important to this process and making it explicit for students as well?
Gabriela: Yeah, because I think those hidden objectives are really in many ways, what directs how we come to organize teaching for ourselves and the meaning that it has. ‘Cause teaching, for me, is always about the relationships that we have and about how, for the instructor, for the professor, it’s about what they are giving back to the world. And when we think about teaching in that context, really we’re thinking about an identity project. And so, often, we might be engaged in an identity project in practice, that is maybe not the identity project we thought we were engaged in. So when we were working in our Center for Teaching and Learning, and we would ask colleagues to think, “Who is the expected student in your course?” … it became clear that for some colleagues, they actually had a pretty precise picture. I teach in a liberal arts college in New England. So they thought that their student was 18 to 21, that they tended to come from New England, that they tended to be middle class. And so if that’s who you’re teaching towards, then you’re probably ignoring a lot of needs, that students who don’t come from those backgrounds might be having, or you’re not even considering the learning differences that students who come from those geographic backgrounds and class backgrounds might have, because you are assuming this student who isn’t raced, who isn’t gendered, who doesn’t have their fullness. And so even if you think you’re having a redemptive project by teaching something like public health, if you haven’t really thought through your audience carefully, and if you haven’t really thought, “how do we get to the future in which we are not just addressing the needs of the suburbs,” for instance.
John: I think a lot of faculty see their audience as being people who are just like them, and the faculty tend to be very different than our students. How can faculty elicit more information about their students’ identities and their needs?
Gabriela: I think that that can be resolved in multiple different ways. So how do we engage with our students’ identities, and I think we can engage at the assignment level, so we can have assignments that are structured to actually actively engage with students’ identities. There’s a lot of research that suggests that engaging with students’ identities allows us to amplify learning in different ways. And so I think that’s a regular practice, it allows for memory retention, it allows for students to integrate learning into their life course. So engaging students with their identities in assignments is one way to do it. So an example of the way that I’ve done this in anthropology courses is, I’ve asked them to engage in participant observation in a part of their daily life. Sometimes, I’ve asked them to do that when they’ve gone back home, or sometimes I’ve asked them to remember and engage in participant observation of a remembered ritual that they participated in. And so that process of engaging students’ identities and life experiences is one way for professors to find out. It also creates a lot more interesting things to grade and read, frankly. So I think it’s an interesting practice. Another way is to actually engage students in devising parts of a curriculum with you that is based on their interests. Many colleagues at my institution also send a questionnaire to students asking them to share their interests, whether these are topical interests, or to share experiences that they think might be impactful in their classroom learning. I think another way is to ask for course material that students would like to engage in together and to ask students to present that course material. So not exactly giving up part of your syllabus, but maybe integrating different pieces of course material. And students have done that in my courses by suggesting things in forums, which then we bring into the course. So there’s different ways that you can engage with students’ identities and experiences. I think the primary way is by saying that you value those, and that you think of those as relevant to the content of the course. So I think that’s the primary way, and there are different ways to signal that which I’ve just tried to go through.
Rebecca: Sometimes, we have conversations with colleagues where they might say, “Ah, I don’t know if this is really for me, because I don’t teach in a field where talking about race or gender or other types of identity is relevant.” Can you talk a little bit about ways that we might address or approach faculty and colleagues who maybe don’t quite see anti- racist education as an approach that is relevant to them?
Gabriela: I think that’s a really interesting question. And I think, starting from the idea of inequality being fundamental to our society, and race inequality being fundamental to our society, and to the creation of knowledge writ large, I think anyone who is working in academia is working in fields that have been shaped by that inequality. So colleagues that say, who are working in STEM can think about the history of knowledge production in their disciplines, and can find those histories of race inequality. For example, in our own college, we’ve been lucky to have Howard Hughes Medical Foundation funding to rethink STEM, and our colleagues have engaged in self- reflective practice. So for instance, we had a laboratory that was named for the famous biologist, Linnaeus, it was the Linnaeus Laboratory, who also happened to be the biologist that created the framework for racialization. And when our colleagues began to look at the production of knowledge, and that something that they felt was central to their canon, but was also central to racial hierarchies, they felt, “Oh, well, perhaps the naming of this laboratory as Linnaeus Laboratory is not the intention that we had in highlighting the history of our knowledge production and making it central to this lab.” So I think it’s always part of the history of knowledge production in any discipline. I mean, certainly in design, it is. [LAUGHTER] But I think also, in my own discipline, anthropology has been very, very tied to histories of colonialism, public health has been very tied to histories of colonialism. So I think in many disciplines, it just takes but to start unraveling a little bit of threads. And I think we’re all involved. And maybe thinking that we’re not means that the reflective practice is more important to start figuring those connections for yourself.
John: And sometimes even a Google search for decolonizing and then a discipline name will turn up a lot of resources, because there’s a lot of people who’ve been working in this in pretty much all disciplines. In May, you co-authored with a couple of other people in an article called “The Change Higher Education Needs Today,” and that deals with critical race theory. Could you talk a little bit about that?
Gabriela: Sure. The essential argument of that piece that I co wrote with Melba Trevino and Irene Mata, it was that if we think of the backlash that there’s been against critical race theory, we often don’t stop to think how that backlash really impacts those who are raced in the academy and working in the academy as raced persons. We often don’t stop to think about how colleagues who are working on let’s say, Latinx literatures are impacted by the constant backlash against critical race theory. And in fact, there are colleges and universities that instead of thinking about it, have attached themselves to the bandwagon of trying to suffocate critical race theory as something that might be dangerous or problematic. And we argued that instead, actually, if higher ed is truly going to become anti-racist, we need to actively incorporate critical race theory and the persons who are de facto assumed to espouse the beliefs that critical race theory, certainly not every person of color in academe would agree with critical race theory, but they’re assumed to and so what does radical inclusion of persons of color in academe mean? It probably means an acceptance that we do need to think about those raced bodies that we work together with. So that is what we were trying to argue. And we were trying to argue that based on our experience developing a mentoring program for faculty of color in New England, and unlike colleges and universities in the south, there very few faculty of color comparatively in New England institutions. And so we’ve created an inter-institutional program to support each other in persisting and thriving.
Rebecca: Can you talk a little bit more about mentorship and its relationship to this work more broadly?
Gabriela: Yeah. So I think mentorship in terms of anti- racist approaches to supporting students is something that has been actively used. So for instance, I participated as part of the Posse Foundation’s mentoring of students in elite colleges and universities. And the idea that to create and sustain persistence of students of color, you need to have systems of support that create an environment where people are not just socially emotionally supported, but also taught the rules of the game that are often talked about as the hidden curriculum. I don’t know if you’ve talked through that concept in Tea for Teaching. So for first-gen, and for a lot of students of color, there are a lot of assumptions that let’s say, my children who have grown up in New England and have half of their friends going to college, they already know that when you go to college, you should talk to your professor or go to office hours, you should ask for a syllabus. A lot of first-gen students, a lot of students of color, don’t know those very basic,” how do I engage with?” …even knowing where the rules are located. And so mentoring for students has always been a part. It is also a part for the persistence of faculty from first-gen backgrounds and faculty who are faculty of color. And so I can give you an example of how important that process is. So it’s important for tenure and promotion. But it’s also important for how do you navigate expectations within departments. And so that is work that we’ve been very lucky to have done working as a group of institutions based out of University of Connecticut.
John: In addition to mentoring, are there any other ways that faculty can try to unhide some of that hidden curriculum?
Gabriela: I think unhiding the hidden curriculum is essential. It’s essential for students who have differences in learning, it’s essential for students who have differences of experience, I think it’s even essential for us as educators to do. I don’t think that can be done by putting everything in the syllabus. So I’ve seen colleagues try to put every single rule possible into a syllabus. An effective strategy I’ve seen used is to try to take a nugget of that hidden curriculum, and explain it to students on a regular basis. And so to set as a goal for yourself, which little nugget am I going to explain in each of my classes? So for example, you could decide to explain the structure of a scientific article, there’s always an abstract, there’s always keywords, there’s always an argument that has to be restated in a conclusion. That is a hidden set of knowledge that actually a lot of students don’t have when they first take, say, a public health class. And you could just teach students to just read as a small goal in a class, or you could teach students that they can get help from a librarian to find out how to put in the best search terms. So you could bring in a librarian into your class and have them do a little bit of show and tell of how effective knowing the right search terms can use. So integrating little tiny pieces of knowledge that you assumed that the students would have is a way to slowly get in bite size, accessible pieces into that hidden curriculum.
John: In a just-in-time format, so that when it’s relevant and salient, students are getting access to the information they need.
Gabriela: I think that’s the most effective way I’ve seen it done. I always start with the idea that the syllabus is your contract. And then we talk about what’s your contract? What does that mean? And I think that that is a really important way to also show students… so to tell students about the kinds of relationships that they were involved in. So as a cultural anthropologist, students don’t often think about the kinds of relationships they’re involved in in a course with a professor. So they might be pretty nervous with a professor, they might be pretty dismissive with a professor, but they don’t realize that when they enter into a course, they enter into an agreement to provide a certain set of things to the professor, and to have the professor provide a certain set of things to them. So just even that basic, “here’s the relationship that we’re in” [LAUGHTER] …is a really important part of what it means to make the hidden curriculum visible.
John: And I was thinking not only in terms of helping students learn how to read scientific articles, which is something they’ve never done before. The same might be true in certain types of writing assignments, where some students will come in with preparation in those areas, others won’t, and just providing the structure that Viji Sathi and Kelly Hogan often talk about to support students who haven’t had that exposure earlier can make a big difference, I think.
Gabriela: Yeah, absolutely. That is such important work in terms of how do we engage in assignments. One of the effective ways that I’ve seen as well is to, if you’re going to be using an assignment regularly, is to work with student educational partners. So our current director of our teaching and learning, Deyonne Bryant, has begun a program where we have student educational interns in some courses, where they can test assignments, where they can act as consultants with the professor. That is a really good way for professors to also engage. his is work that has been done for a really long time at Bryn Mawr, and which is also outlined in the Picture a Professor volume. And so I would suggest people have a look at that chapter as well.
Rebecca: As part of this work, institutions make all kinds of statements, we’ve got DEI statements, we’ve got strategic plans around diversity, equity, and inclusion, we’ve got social justice missions at our institutions that often feel separate from our work as teachers. And so what role do teachers have in this work or what role do our classrooms have in this work?
Gabriela: The title of the piece was really reacting to the performativity that surrounded the post George Floyd moment, where businesses and certainly higher ed institutions were making statements. [LAUGHTER] And so I think the one point that is important for me to make is I think the classroom is really a site for making good on any statement that might be made at the institutional level. And actually, the classroom has to be the site where we make good on those statements. So thinking about the work that as professors we might do in the classroom is not untied to those statements, but as actually the space in which we are able to effectively deliver on those statements. So that as faculty members we’re essential parts of any anti-racist agenda that our institution has said it holds. And then I think faculty members need to hold their institutions accountable. So if they are unable to support students, or present the curricula that they need to… so for example, they have insufficient OER materials to make the content that they’re using accessible, and they want support for their institution to develop OER materials, or need different kinds of resources in their libraries, I think that professors do need to think of their role as saying, “I’m trying to make this effective in my classroom, and we’re going to need to be resourced in this way.” So I think tying yourself to institutional aspirations that are located within those diversity and equity statements is really important.
Rebecca: So we always wrap up by asking: “What’s next?”
Gabriela: I think what’s next is why I moved to this particular role as the Associate Provost, and that is to think about the complicated nature of resourcing diversity and equity work. So diversity and equity work is often an aspiration, but not a resource one. And so thinking about what’s next for me is trying to enact that change by creating the policies, and support, and follow up that we need to truly take on the work of equity in higher ed beyond those statements. And so, I guess, in complementing the accountability that I think faculty members should hold their administrations to, I think what’s next for me is trying to be a partner in that from the administrative end.
Rebecca: …important work to be done, for sure.
John: Well, thank you for joining us. We’ve very much enjoyed talking to you and we hope we’ll be talking to you again.
Gabriela: Thank you so much. Thank you for doing this Tea for Teaching.
John: It’s been a lot of fun.
Rebecca: Yeah, thank you so much for sharing your expertise.
John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.
Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.