Artwork by Clare Reid
Higher education’s deep racial inequalities require more than just building awareness. To properly address these injustices, professors need to engage in anti-racist policies and teaching methods in order to change their classrooms and the campus environment for the better. In the latest episode of the What We’re Learning About Learning podcast, some Georgetown professors shared their perspectives and the ways they’re growing to make their classrooms more inclusive and equitable.
“Racism is in the water. It’s in everything that we do and, and I just wish I could get out of it sometimes and just, you know, float around,” School of Medicine professor Donna Cameron said.
The results of a campus climate survey last year helped open some professors’ eyes to the extent of the problem. It found that about 72% of white students agreed that people at Georgetown supported each other, while only about 36% of Black students and 59% of Latinx students said the same. Additionally, 43% of Black students reported feeling that they are part of the Georgetown community, compared to 76% of white students.
In the summer of 2020, a group of Black Georgetown students created a video entitled “I Can’t Breathe” where they shared their experiences with racism on campus.
Cameron shared that, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder last summer, the Black students and faculty of the medical school wrote an open letter containing demands for the administration. She noted the first three words of the letter, “We are suffering,” and said they hit home the hardest for her.
“The mama bear in me was activated,” Cameron said. “I can listen to them. I can address things. I’m a full professor, I have a degree of influence here at this institution so I just said to myself: what can I do?”
What the professors interviewed on the podcast chose to do included regular updates to the syllabus, rethinking assignment design and how classroom time is organized, and promoting participation for as many students as possible.
“What I want to do is create an environment where there’s more encounters and experiences of each and every individual in the classroom.” McDonough School of Business professor Bob Bies said. “I learned as much from them and their experiences, as hopefully I impart to them in terms of frameworks and all those sort of things, but I have to be open to learn for me to be culturally responsive.”
Linguistics professor Nic Subtirelu: “I think fundamentally the barrier to their inclusion is the same barrier to their inclusion elsewhere. It is white supremacy, and we are always trying to dismantle it.”
Other ways professors have improved inclusion is by generally making classroom sessions more interactive, a strategy which usually benefits overall engagement as well. This can include more time for discussion, allowing every student an opportunity to speak if they want, finding new ways for students to participate in class, and encouraging them to speak and learn from each other.
Ultimately, developing anti-racist pedagogical methods is an ongoing process, as all of these professors noted. And this process does not occur without some conflict, either.
While there is plenty of work to be done, the mission can be motivating.
“On some level, I find it really awesome that the work is never done, because it means that there’s a purpose for my life and there’s a challenge for me to pursue,” Subtirelu said. “I can feel myself getting better. And that’s fulfilling.”
You can hear more reflections and strategies from these faculty members as well as from professors and staff members Amrita Ibrahim, Marcia Chatelain, Amena Johnson, and Sabrina Wesley-Nero in the full episode.