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Duke Faculty Share Ideas for Helping Students Learn and Thrive

Promoting an equitable learning and research environment for students

On campus, students look to faculty members for scholarly leadership in the classroom and the lab. This influence extends further, says John Blackshear, associate vice provost for undergraduate education and dean of students, as faculty can model practices that foster a more equitable learning environment.

A class being lead by an instructor outside
John Blackshear leading a Spring Breakthrough class in 2019 (Photo: Jared Lazarus)
“What I’ve seen is that when we engage folks who are in housekeeping, dining services or other service roles, how we engage them and signal to our students their importance in this space means a ton to them,” he observed, “and that carries over to what kind of vulnerabilities people are willing to demonstrate in the classroom space.”

Recently, Duke Faculty Advancement presented a workshop for 50 participants on promoting an equitable learning and research environment for students. Blackshear served as moderator of a faculty panel.

Abbas Benmamoun, vice provost for faculty advancement, expressed gratitude to “everyone who has been teaching during these challenging times. Thank you for being there for our students and for offering them mentoring and support.”

Here are brief excerpts from the presenters:

Kathryn Whetten

Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy

A woman smiles

I teach global health ethics as one of my classes. I open the classroom the first day by having the students talk about what a respectful classroom looks like to them. They are fantastic at bringing up [things like] noises someone might make — kind of a little laughter or when something is said in a certain way. We talk about power dynamics. And I say that I’m learning and to please tell me if something has happened in the classroom that I missed, or if I made a misstep. If you don’t feel comfortable coming to me, go to a TA or to another student who could come to me, because I really want to know.

Then we write up a document: this is what we’re going to do to have respectful conversations. At the close of the [course], I’ll ask if they thought to go back to that original document, if there are ways that we can improve, or ways that I can improve.

[Another] practice that I have is around gender identity — putting in the syllabus where the closest gender-inclusive bathroom is — and using pronouns. I think that helps set a tone of inclusivity, openness and honoring the diversity that’s in our classrooms.

Eileen Chow

Associate Professor of the Practice of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

A woman smiles

I teach a class on Chinatown as cultural history. It’s a pretty big class and has a heterogeneous range of students. I begin my first day by asking them a single question: How’d you get here today? You can take that question as narrowly or expansively as you wish. Don’t write your answer, draw it. Then I ask them to pair up with somebody they didn’t come to the class with, and see if the other person can decipher their drawing of the story of how they got there. Then we discuss.

Rather than jump in with the history and the theory readings, I want them to be on the same page to experience the theory, and so this opens up possibilities for talking. ‘How’d you get here today’ is also about social hierarchies and difference, and the drawing is a big icebreaker.

From the first design of the class, it was meant to be teaching about how people form communities and endure dire circumstances. My initial email [to students] says that in the larger scheme of things, one single course or your entire Duke fall semester will not make or break your life, but I hope this too can be your community. I want to start from a place of saying, this is why I designed the course. And what better moment than this extraordinary circumstance [of the pandemic] to test the fragile bonds of community with strangers?

Gustavo Silva

Assistant Professor of Biology

A man smiles

I think it’s our duty as faculty to always try to provide the best support that we can for each one of our trainees. What has been working in my lab to promote a more equitable space is to create structure. It’s easier when you have a structure in place that allows everybody to be the full version of themselves and have ways to communicate.

One of the tools that we use is the individual development plan that I go through with each one of them at least twice a year. We ask questions not only about the science but about their future career goals, so we can have alignment of our expectations. We think about technical skills, but also soft skills that they want to develop, and any other information they think it is relevant for this relationship. I like to have weekly dedicated space to make sure that, even if we don’t have a lot to check in about, at least they know that we have a dedicated space for them.

There’s also a power dynamic and [some trainees] might feel intimidated to be one on one with their mentor. So, for example, can we try to alternate having conversations with something in writing that they could put a report or a strategic plan? This allow them to have time to think about their own ideas, without feeling that pressure to be always engaged with you. But you have students that could be completely the opposite, so what I tried to create is different mechanisms, so we can do a mentor-mentee relationship that works for everybody.

Main image: Duke students in Bio 202 touring the Duke greenhouses in 2018 (Photo: Megan Mendenhall)