This spring, eight BCSSW faculty members participated in the second annual Inclusive Classroom Practices Seminar, a semester-long course organized by Boston College’s Center for Teaching Excellence. The seminar offered an open forum for them to share their experiences, challenges, and successes around diversity and inclusion in the classroom, and to discuss how school- and campus-wide policies and curricula might better support the success of students from a wide array of backgrounds.
Vincent Fusaro, an assistant professor who joined the BCSSW faculty in 2017, took the seminar to build on previous trainings he had done at the University of Michigan.
“A discipline like social work attracts people from a diverse array of backgrounds and a diverse range of ages,” he says. “I wanted to think about how we can meet the needs of all these different kinds of folks and maximize the array of perspectives and experiences in the classroom to facilitate everyone’s learning.”
“Creating an inclusive classroom is not just something we can assume is going to happen. It has to be intentional.”
For Associate Professor Margaret Lombe, who has taught at the School of Social Work since 2004 and serves as assistant dean of its doctoral program, the seminar helped establish what she called a “unit” with her colleagues, so that they might better collaborate on these important issues. Building a welcoming and constructive educational environment for all, she says, does not happen by accident.
“Creating an inclusive classroom is not just something we can assume is going to happen,” Lombe says. “It has to be intentional.”
For the second year running, the seminar was facilitated by Stacy Grooters, the interim director of the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE). Grooters developed the course, she says, because of “calls across campus for greater conversations around questions of inclusion in the classroom” from both students and faculty. She notes that recent studies have shown that college students’ sense of belonging on campus is linked not only to their emotional well-being, but also to their ability to succeed academically and transition into their desired careers after school.
She led the seminar at BCSSW for the first time in spring 2018, with a group of six faculty. After receiving positive feedback from the participants and a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation, the school and the CTE decided to offer it again.
“Social work education is a fascinating space for talking about inclusivity,” Grooters says, “because professors are both teaching students about the field of social work and teaching them to become social workers.”
The seminar met five times during the spring semester. Faculty participants discussed their own classroom experiences and contextualized them with readings on inclusive teaching, which ranged from Paulo Freire’s seminal book Pedagogy of the Oppressed to Annie Murphy Paul’s 2015 New York Times op-ed “Are College Lectures Unfair?” The latter considers whether the lecture format, long a staple of college education in the U.S., may be biased in favor of white students from affluent backgrounds.
“Some of the habits of teaching that we have inherited were originally designed over a hundred years ago, with smaller, less diverse groups of students in mind,” Grooters says. “They may be less effective in today’s classrooms.”
She invited the faculty in the course to think about innovative pedagogical approaches they could try out in their own classrooms, and ones that they were already using. For Margaret Lombe, a crucial part of inclusive teaching involves striving to give “intentional space to voices that are not always privileged, specifically minority voices and women’s voices,” both by facilitating class discussions to center those voices and by crafting syllabi that feature authors of color and women.
Associate Professor Susan Tohn has taken up this mantle both on the school-wide level, by helping introduce the practice of asking students for their name and pronoun in class, and in BCSSW’s curricula, by developing courses such as Working with Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Questioning Youth, Families and Adults. In addition to building a week on LGBTQ issues into her course Clinical Practice with Children and Families—which all BCSSW students are required to take—she sorted through the predominately white genre of young adult fiction to include novels that feature characters of color confronting mental health diagnoses in her syllabus.
“It’s essential for us to keep looking for those examples so that our course design and readings will reflect both our students themselves and the clients they’ll be working with in the field,” Tohn says.
For Vincent Fusaro, inclusive teaching involves facilitating difficult discussions and respecting students’ time and their beliefs. He sometimes asks students to write their responses to sensitive questions on paper and turn them in anonymously in order to foster open discussion around controversial topics such as welfare policy. He also primes students in his reading-intensive graduate courses on where to focus their attention before they read.
“Many of my MSW students have family and job responsibilities, and being respectful of their time by letting them know what to look for in the reading is a way to be inclusive,” he says.
Lombe, a native of Zambia who has taught courses on global social work practice and consulted for the U.N., notes that these classroom efforts play out differently for each of her colleagues. “My struggles in the classroom are not necessarily the same as all my colleagues’ struggles because I’m a person of color.”
Above all, the seminar was a collective reminder that participants needed to make efforts to get to know their students. Even in large lectures, professors can lessen the gap by holding office hours early in the semester or by asking students to write letters to them about their goals for each course and their concerns.
“The focus was on the students,” Lombe says. “How do we create a space that respects all the different voices that come to the classroom? How do we have difficult conversations when difficult conversations arise?”
This latter point—the instructor’s role as the facilitator of tough conversations on controversial topics—was something that Grooters designed the seminar to address. Especially in today’s charged political climate, instructors often come to her asking how they can address and challenge ideas that perpetuate stereotypes, without making the student who posed those ideas feel personally attacked.
“If you hear something that is definitely going to be offensive to one group of students, silence is not an adequate response,” Lombe says. “In the seminar, we talked about challenging such perspectives, but in a way that is respectful and supportive of the student whose perspective you’re challenging.”
Like these difficult conversations, the conversations that began in the 10-week seminar are ongoing, and they will continue beyond the walls of the classroom. In Vincent Fusaro’s view, the important thing is to keep having them.
“The seminar develops cohorts who can draw from a bank of shared language to talk about inclusive teaching. It is part of a broader conversation on equity and inclusion within the school and the University.”
Photography by Caitlin Cunningham.