Teaching that caters to all

Thomas Hanson and Joelle Conway

 In light of recent events, faculty, staff and students of Washburn have been pushing administration for campus reform regarding inclusion and sensitivity.

While improvements with regards to developing a student centered relational teaching approach are still required, Washburn is still achieving some success in this area as many can testify that other universities, specifically the larger ones, function quite robotically where trusting relationships with professors are scarce.

In April 2019, Dwane Simmons, a Washburn student, was shot and killed at a party. Many Washburn students were there. The campus was greatly affected by the tragedy.

An all faculty and staff email was sent out Sunday, April 28. The email addressed the shooting and Simmon’s untimely death. The email did not provide resources to faculty and staff besides stating: “We also want to make sure that the campus community knows that we have counseling resources available. We will have counselors on campus today (April 28) and the counseling help line–785-670-3100–is available 24 hours a day.”

JuliAnn Mazacheck also sent an all staff and faculty email the following Tuesday, April 30. The email encouraged faculty and staff to work with students affected by the traumatic event and the chair of their department regarding students who may not be able to complete the class or finals. The email encouraged faculty and staff to refer campus mental health services to students.

To the best of our knowledge, there was no required seminar or all-staff, in-person meeting held for faculty and staff on how to best handle the student trauma that occurred from the tragedy. There was no actual required guidance training for the faculty and staff of Washburn on how to address the situation to students, how to best help students, how to recognize a student having a breakdown in class or a revision to finals week requirements.

A traumatic event is defined by the American Psychological Association as “one in which a person experiences, witnesses or is confronted with threatened (or actual) death, serious injury or threat to the physical integrity of oneself or others. Trauma can happen as a result of, but not limited to, physical, sexual, verbal or emotional abuse, war, violence, neglect or natural disasters.

According to population studies conducted by the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention, approximately 60 percent of children will experience or witness trauma before the age of 18. An estimated seven out of ten adults in America have experienced a traumatic event at least one time. Of those who experience trauma, about 20 percent develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (American Psychological Association).

Jessica Cless is an Assistant Professor of the Human Services Department. Cless led the event “Trauma-informed Teaching Practices in Higher Education” that was part of the Certificate of Inclusive Teaching and Learning event opportunities.

The issue of sensitive and inclusive teaching has wide reach as Cless explains, “A lot of students will have experienced trauma by the time they get to college or will experience trauma while in college, this can really disrupt the learning experience, so it is relevant for all teachers, all subjects”.

To teach and engage inclusively requires an understanding of not just the content of our speech, but how it is conveyed. Cless said, “How do we talk about these things if they do come up in class or are relevant to our students? There are some things that we can’t control, like the student we lost this past semester or students who experience racism or crime on campus, that happens outside of our classroom. When it’s still relevant to students, how do we engage when we are teaching, either about these topics or within the context of what’s occurring in the community.”

Cless believes inclusion in her teaching coincides with forming relationships with her students. “I think learning to be more inclusive in my teaching practice has been sort of synonymous with just trying to see my teaching as a relationship that I enter with my students every semester,” she said.

“Teaching is not just about standing up and delivering knowledge, or whatever you have to say, it’s about relationships,” said Cless. “Anytime you’re in a relationship, you have to care about them, get to know them and sort of nurture that relationship throughout, in this case, the semester.”

Liz Derrington is a lecturer for the department of English. As part of the Inclusive Teaching Certificate, Derrington facilitated “Teaching Circle: Universal Design in Higher Education.” Derrington has already begun thinking about how she is going to incorporate what she learned from obtaining the certificate into her classes. As of now, she is wanting to change her readings to include more diverse authors and create class assignments that are geared toward everybody, not just those who are good at talking in class. With the 2019 Fall semester rapidly approaching, Derrington is focusing on ways to revamp her curriculum to include more students.

To Derrington, diversity and inclusion means more than just a proclamation of its practice. She said, “I like the word inclusion better than diversity, it (diversity) has become a catchword. Look we are diverse, we have students of color on our brochures, but when they get to campus do they have the necessary support systems, do they see themselves represented in faculty and in the readings we cover? Again that’s why I prefer the word inclusion, are we actually including all kinds of students, making them feel welcome and safe to learn?”

With the goal in mind of furthering Washburn as a welcoming place for all students, perhaps we may seek to view diversity as the sovereignty of the individual, for the unique combination of an infinite number group attributes that a student may possess. They may possess certain group attributes (creed, race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc.) but at the crux of this is a unique individual whose interests are primary to the group they may belong.

Although 32 faculty and staff members completed the certificate, there were many employees of Washburn (with the exception of students) who did not participate in any of the diversity events hosted by C-TEL. Training all faculty, administration and staff members on campus inclusion may result in benefits for students, especially minority groups. Many believe Washburn should be doing more to cultivate a welcoming, open-minded and diverse campus.

“This is one of those programs that I’m really proud we offer at Washburn,” said Cless. She continued, “That’s probably why I feel so strongly that we should require, if not this certificate, a general built-in requirement for professors. I know this bumps up against academic freedom, but I feel so strongly about it because I think, as a professor, you need to have a lot in your toolbox to cater to the students coming in.”

In regards to inclusion training being required for faculty, Darrington said, “I would love to see more faculty attending events through the Centre for Teaching Excellence and Learning and more faculty explicitly seeking this certificate for inclusive teaching. They are doing great work but more training for true inclusion will make this a welcome place for everybody.”

With more staff attending these workshops, Derrington predicts a positive impact for the campus climate when she says, “The more we try to address these issues, the more we learn about how to prevent them, acting proactively instead of reactively will help the campus become more welcoming.”

The Certificate for Inclusive Teaching and Learning will be offered for the second time in the 2019-2020 school year.

Edited by Adam White