“I Want to Hear About You”
President Lawrence S. Bacow opened last Friday’s Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching (HILT) conference—convened this year over Zoom—by talking about vulnerability, human connection, and the coronavirus’s disruptions of everyday routines. “There’s not much to recommend a pandemic, but it has made more dimensions of our lives visible to one another and created opportunities for the kinds of sympathy and empathy that lead one to understand and appreciate others,” he said. “I imagine many of you know more about the circumstances of your students’ lives and the challenges they face than you have in years past.”
This year’s conference, which drew roughly 400 participants, focused on building inclusive classrooms and equitable instruction. Although the topic was set nearly a year ago, it felt particularly relevant during a semester when the challenges of remote learning have concentrated professors’ and administrators’ attention on how to make sure students who are stretched across multiple time zones or who may lack internet access or other resources don’t get left out of the virtual classroom. At the same time, the summer’s protest movement for racial justice raised new and urgent questions about equality on college campuses. “We have an opportunity not only to adapt to the circumstances of the pandemic,” said provost Alan Garber, “but to learn from this experience and go beyond and accomplish much more.…How do we encourage respectful disagreement, and practice active listening? How do we build a sense of community among the learners in our remote classrooms and provide brave spaces to safely foster challenging dialogue? How can we build equitable learning opportunities for our students, no matter their backgrounds, accessibility needs, or differentiated learning styles?” Earlier, he had asked, “How do we retain a commitment to academic rigor while supporting students dealing with extraordinary uncertainties and challenges?”
“How does it feel to be a problem?”
The main panel discussion was facilitated by chief diversity and inclusion officer Sherri Ann Charleston, who arrived at Harvard in August and framed the conversation early with a quote from an 1897 essay by W.E.B. Du Bois, A.B. 1890, Ph.D. ’95, in which he laid out a question that often lurked just below the surface in his interactions with well-meaning white people: “How does it feel to be a problem?” To Du Bois’s question, Charleston added a comment: “There’s a common trap of treating students as problems to be solved, rather than engaging the problem of inequality.”
The panelists were linguist María Luisa Parra, a senior preceptor in Romance languages and literatures who studies bilingualism and second-language acquisition; Anthony Abraham Jack, assistant professor at the Graduate School of Education and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students; and poet and educator Clint Smith, Ed.M. ’17, Ph.D. ’20, a staff writer at The Atlantic and author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and the forthcoming How the Word Is Passed, a nonfiction book on historical sites’ reckoning with slavery.
“When students arrive, both in the classrooms and in the Houses, they encounter that hidden curriculum, right?” Jack said, referring to the system of unwritten rules and expectations that first-generation students don’t always know how to navigate, in the way that their more-practiced peers do. “We always say when office hours are, but we almost never say what they are. We expect students to know the lingo, the shorthand, the nomenclature of our campus before they arrive.”
Parra spoke from her perspective of working with Latinx children and families striving toward college. “By the time they arrive at an institution like Harvard, they have made really significant efforts—they and their families—to navigate and succeed within a system that, through different mechanisms, has pushed them out.” The value of their own linguistic and cultural heritages, she added, is often not recognized at all. “By the time they come to Harvard and the Spanish classroom, they arrive with histories of discrimination, stigma, decisions that have undermined their own sense of identity.” Resources are channeled toward students who want to learn Spanish as a foreign language, she said, but those for whom Spanish is a native tongue often find “no resources or classes, spaces for Latinx heritage, for young people who want to engage with this knowledge that they have.”
Smith noted the double-edged nature of telling students from disadvantaged backgrounds that they are “exceptional.” “Students are told this in ways that are meant as a compliment, but ultimately are legitimizing a larger set of oppressive conditions and social forces,” he said. Recalling James Baldwin’s 1963 essay “A Talk to Teachers,” he said that “students are told over and over again” that they come from communities that are inherently criminal, “and that the reason certain communities look the way they do is their fault, rather than the fault of the larger systems and structures.”
He spoke about his own experience with that kind of doctrine about exceptionalism and community. “It was my ethnic-studies class that gave me the language to understand that so much of what I had heard from the world about me, and about my community, about New Orleans, where I grew up, was a lie. I think there’s something deeply liberating and deeply emancipatory for young people to be given the tools and the history and sociology and literature to be able to better name, identify, and make sense of who they are in relationship to the world, in ways that oftentimes run counter to the narrative they’ve been inundated with. And so I think it’s really important for faculty…to make sure that we are bringing those conversations directly into our classrooms.” Students need to be able to retain the communities that nurtured them into college, he added later. “We need to really make sure students don’t feel like they have to leave people or places behind in order to be successful moving forward.”
Building on that point, Jack described how lower-income or first-generation students often felt caught between their home communities and their new elite institutions. “We don’t do enough building of ties with family so that students [are not] having to choose between the people who worked their butt off for 18 years to get them to the place they’re at now, who are giving them one kind of advice”—often gleaned from jobs where the best practice is to show up on time and “not make a fuss”—"versus people who they just met but who have the positions or the titles or the degrees they want, but who you don’t know from Adam. So, who do you trust in that situation?” For many students, that choice is difficult and stark. “A lot of students feel this tension, and it happens in the classroom, and in the dorms, and in the support services,” he continued. “Many of our students feel lost, because there hasn’t been a communication, there hasn’t been any attempt to broker these two communities.”
When Zoom favors outspokenness
Following the panel discussion, the conference offered two pairs of breakout sessions, aimed at giving faculty members concrete frameworks and procedures for making their courses and classrooms more inclusive and equitable. In “Adaptive Pedagogies: Supporting Students During Challenging Times,” Pamela Pollock, director of professional development at the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, and Alexis Stokes, director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging at Harvard’s Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, offered advice for writing inclusive principles explicitly into the syllabus and for drawing students out in productive and careful ways during discussions of difficult topics. Afterward, the group discussed a series of hypothetical scenarios involving students without electricity or internet access in hurricane-ravaged hometowns, or whose parents are sick with COVID-19, or who are arrested in racial-justice protests, or who come to office hours to complain about a professor’s racial insensitivity.
In another breakout session, students—both graduate and undergraduate, from a range of disciplines—discussed their own past texperiences with inclusiveness, or the lack of it, in Harvard classes, both in-person and remote. One recalled an art course in which the professor and other students seemed unwilling or unable to engage with the racial and political elements of another student’s artwork; as a result, “I stopped feeling comfortable showing my art, which was very related to race,” she said. Another student discussed how faculty members’ eagerness to include students’ subjective experiences can go awry and sometimes lead to individual minority students being asked to represent the perspective of an entire group. Jo Persad, a master’s student in the Graduate School of Education, talked about how the structure of remote learning amplifies existing challenges: “Zoom favors outspokenness” even more than in-person classrooms do, she said. Making quieter students feel comfortable, she added, is an important responsibility for instructors. “How are they going to feel like they can take risks if they don't even feel like anybody notices their presence? To me, connectedness starts by, like, saying, ‘I want to hear about you. I want to learn about you. I want to seek you out.’”