20 July 2021

Teaching for Equity Workshops: A Research-Based Conversation Starter Pack

Jessica Fielder San Francisco State University

Teaching for Equity workshop participants at the AAS winter 2020 meeting in Honolulu, Hawai’i discussing the two Gutiérrez articles.
Teaching for Equity workshop participants at the 235th AAS meeting in Honolulu, Hawai’i (January 2020) discussing the two Gutiérrez articles. Photo by Jessica Fielder.

One of the most pressing challenges in astronomy education is ensuring that our classrooms are safe and equitable spaces for students who are people of color, disabled, women, LGBTQI+, and the especially vulnerable population of those whose identities intersect more than one of these categories. Unfortunately, there is no cookbook, one-size-fits-all solution to creating an equitable classroom. So how can one determine what changes one should make, and then go about implementing those changes? In the Teaching for Equity workshops funded by the AAS-EPD Mini-Grant program, we offered folks a chance to engage with articles and each other and try to start to answer, or at least understand, these questions. The following overview is not an exhaustive or exclusive list of topics or articles on equitable teaching, but rather a jumping-off point for having conversations about what action to take.

Understanding your goals

Before we can make changes, it helps to try to define our ideal classroom. How would we know our classrooms are more equitable? What would we be able to observe, and how would our students’ experiences be different than they currently are? With these questions in mind, it’s useful to consider the two axes of access vs. achievement and identity vs. power as presented in Rochelle Gutiérrez’s articles Framing Equity: Helping Students “Play the Game” and “Change the Game”  and Embracing the Inherent Tensions in Teaching Mathematics from an Equity Stance. These articles provide a framework for considering large-scale and small-scale concerns that educators may have, such as “might I be doing a disservice to my students by making my classroom equitable when they will almost certainly encounter other inequitable learning environments later in their education?” These articles also invite us to sit in the knowledge that our efforts will likely not be perfectly executed, nor will they be the same efforts a colleague in a different teaching context might choose. By starting with our goals, it becomes easier to see why our approaches may differ based on our context.

Understanding your students

One of the next critical aspects to consider is the specific context in which we are teaching astronomy. For example, the first changes undertaken by a small community college with one or two astronomy faculty might not make sense for a bigger group of faculty at a large historically Black college and university (HBCU). We are all hungry for more case studies, but reading case studies ultimately cannot replace thinking deeply about the needs of our specific body of students. With this in mind, it helps to consider the students we are actually teaching, and follow Tara Yosso’s advice from her 2006 article Whose culture has capital? A critical race theory discussion of community cultural wealth. By focusing on what our students bring to the classroom rather than on their deficits, we can avoid “gap-gazing” and build upon students’ strengths rather than viewing them as something to be fixed or altered in order to fit into an astronomy classroom.

Understanding how and where people learn

In considering our particular teaching contexts, we cannot focus solely on our students. We also have to look at the things students interact with as they are learning: the syllabi for their courses, the departmental spaces that students frequent, and of course each other. Addressing classroom climate is a multi-faceted task and can feel daunting but also turns out to be incredibly rewarding. Chapter 6 in Susan Ambrose’s book How Learning Works gives several concrete strategies for improving classroom climate. Examining the language used in our course syllabus from the point of view of a marginalized student (using one of the many existing inclusive syllabus checklist tools such as those from the University of Kansas, UCLA, or UMass Amherst) is one way to address how welcoming a course is. Additionally, it is worth considering the physical spaces that our students move through classrooms, offices, student lounges, etc., to identify if they could be made more welcoming. Even something as seemingly benign as the posters decorating an informal student meeting room can affect whether a student feels a sense of belonging as pointed out by Cheryan, Plaut, Davies, and Steele’s 2009 article Ambient Belonging: How Stereotypical Cues Impact Gender Participation in Computer Science.

There is also the critical aspect of communication, which underlies all of these considerations. Being able to communicate to students how they are expected to engage with the courses we are teaching, when we expect them to seek help and how to do so, or what measures we will use to evaluate their progress and understanding is arguably just as important as communicating the science; especially when we consider the impact of that communication on the students’ learning experiences! It can be helpful to enlist the help of a grader, teaching assistant, or learning assistant to review our syllabus or assignment instructions to make sure we are conveying everything we want to.

Implementing a plan

Finally, coming up with a plan for change and how you intend to implement it is an important step. It also gives us a chance to evaluate our changes in meaningful ways, such as using assessments and diagnostics that can be found on PhysPort. Creating a plan makes it easier to prevent ourselves from taking on too many changes too quickly, risking burnout. Since we won’t get it perfectly right the first time, it’s necessary to have a teaching practice that can sustain a cycle of development, implementation, and analysis.

I hope these articles and resources help you in your teaching, equity, and inclusion work!