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Being the change

Faculty and staff in the Department of Biology Teaching and Learning are rethinking how they do their work to make it more equitable and inclusive.

BTL faculty and staff

From left: Meaghan Stein, Kelly Lane, Katherine Furniss, Deena Wassenberg, Sue Wick, and David Kirkpatrick

It’s often said that diversity, equity, and inclusion are everyone’s everyday work, but it doesn’t just happen automatically. Integrating it fully means looking at how things are done, what the incentives are, and perhaps most important, our own assumptions. With that in mind, the College’s Department of Biology Teaching and Learning (BTL), took steps to empower faculty and staff to make changes.

“My job is to remove barriers,” says David Kirkpatrick, BTL’s department head. He began including time during every department meeting to explore how diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) intersect with all aspects of BTL’s mission. It’s one of a number of steps the department has taken to put DEI in the foreground. This spring, the University’s Office of Equity and Diversity recognized BTL for its efforts with an Outstanding Unit Award. 

“The department was founded by individuals who wanted to ensure each student could be successful in the class or in the lab,” says Katie Furniss, a teaching assistant professor in BTL. “When you look at your data, and it says that you're not succeeding for every student, then you either make the choice that that's the way it is, and you're fine with it, or you make the choice that you're not okay with it. … There's only one answer for people in this department. Let's do something about it.”

While DEI emerged organically as central to the department’s mission given its focus on identifying and implementing evidence-based approaches to teaching and learning biology, after the murder of George Floyd and the renewed calls to address systemic racism that followed, faculty and staff in the department wanted to do more. A grassroots working group formed with an eye to making BTL and its programs more inclusive across all its functions, from how it recruits and trains teaching assistants, to examining the impact of unconscious bias in the classroom, and providing guidance for incorporating DEI language into a syllabus.  

“There is this idea that science is more evidence-based and less biased, but scientists often are thinking that way in respect to the field that they know, not necessarily applying it to their everyday life or their teaching,” says Kirkpatrick. “Understanding our own backgrounds and places where we may have felt not as welcomed or not as included helps us then be more empathetic to individual students' situations,” says Meaghan Stein, BTL’s coordinator of teaching and learning initiatives. For faculty and staff who make understanding their own biases a priority, the effect can prompt changes big and small. Case in point: office hours.

“We assume that students know what office hours means. So we just put ‘office hours’ and the day and time on the syllabus without actually explaining that,” says Kirkpatrick. “But some students who would have no context or no background might assume that that's the time when the professor is working in their office, not the time when students get to come talk to them, for example.” Kirkpatrick made a small tweak – he now calls them “student hours” – to remove some of the guesswork for students.

BTL has also taken steps to make teaching assistant recruitment more equitable, making sure positions are advertised broadly, and training TAs to eschew the deficit model. “Instead of saying “you're behind” to a student who isn’t familiar with the material,” says Furniss, “the question becomes ‘What are you bringing? How can we leverage your strengths to benefit you and your group and this classroom and our community?’ Because that diversity enriches everybody around.”  

- Stephanie Xenos

July, 2022