Can lecturers do anything to combat vandalism, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination? “Diversity and inclusiveness is not a quick fix”, wrote the National Student Union alongside its list of ‘only’ ten recommendations for an inclusive atmosphere in the classroom, which educators can use to help create a safe environment. Below, four lecturers talk about how they make their instruction inclusive.
1. ‘Share the facilities and contact numbers that students need to know about’
According to Peter Moorman (Faculty of Medicine), facilities such as reporting hotlines, confidential advisors and support staff have always been there. “And I’ve been working in education a long time. But whether students are able to find them – that’s another question entirely.” The Academic Skills lecturer believes it is the responsibility of the faculty, not individual lecturers, to share this information with students.
Jane Murray Cramm, Professor of Person-centred Care at the Erasmus School of Health Policy & Management (ESHPM), went out to see for herself how easy it was to find the confidential advisors. “It wasn’t good enough. We’re now working on a ‘social safety’ button on the ESPHM homepage.” There, students should be able to quickly find contact details for confidential advisors and other support staff.
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2. ‘Share your pronouns with the class, and actively ask for those of your students’
“This is something that some students are still completely unaware of”, says Cramm. “And you shouldn’t force anybody to talk about it if they don’t want to. It’s about creating an atmosphere where it doesn’t matter what your pronouns are.” Jasmien Khattab (from the Rotterdam School of Management) says that she can’t ask all of her 2000 students what their pronouns are. “But you can tell them what yours are, which shows that you’ve thought about it and that students are free to share their preferences.”
3. ‘Try asking: How are things?’
“I regularly ask my students how they are doing”, says Moorman, who is a bachelor’s and master’s lecturer at the faculty of Medicine. “The Master’s students have just had their clinical internships, and I ask how they went. I know that the first-years can be stressed about their assignments, so we talk about it so they realise they don’t need to be.” Moorman does note that asking after students is not as simple as it seems. “You can’t get too personal. Many students don’t appreciate it, especially in a lecture hall with over four hundred other students. If there’s a problem, many students bring it up themselves. For example, someone might email me before a lecture, saying their grandma has died. Then at least you know what’s going on.” But lecturers do need to make time for such things, they emphasise. When they do, tutor Ilse van den Dorpel notices the difference: the dynamics improve.
4. ‘Try asking: What do you need in order to feel safe in class?’
“In my view, safety means reducing the distance”, says Van den Dorpel from the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences. “I say that everyone has the right to be here, and that people can share both happy and not-so-happy thoughts. But there is no pressure to do so.” She makes a point of learning all her students’ names, which she often can after one or two sessions. It does take time, however. “It all starts with creating a safe environment. Inclusiveness flows from there.”
“That implies that everybody feels safe enough to share whatever they like”, Khattab notes. “It’s a paradox. You don’t share things if you feel unsafe, because you have an unsafe feeling.” Moorman stresses the importance of lecturers receiving feedback.”‘Feeling unsafe’ is on all the evaluation forms, students who indicate that they sometimes feel unsafe often don’t say why. We try to get students thinking. The realisation that there’s something you don’t know can result in an insecure feeling. Is that unsafe? Evaluation forms are often not enough for lecturers to know what they can do differently.”
5. ‘Be aware of trigger warnings’
Although it is important to be aware of possible triggers, says Van den Dolder, in practice there is more involved. “There’s a lot of feeling in language. What sounds neutral to me might not be for someone else. I try to take that into consideration.”
Balance, that’s what it’s about, says Khattab. “You do need to be aware of triggers, but it’s also important to retain your own teaching style. When I worked in the United States, I had a fellow lecturer who often and explicitly used the word “fuck”, which is an absolute no-no over there. Still, he won heaps of teaching awards”, says the lecturer of Innovation Management.
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6. ‘Schedule regular office hours for students to ask questions one-on-one’
“We’ve been doing this for a couple of years now in the Master’s of Medicine”, says Moorman. “It’s now always around lunchtime, but we’ll be extending those hours. Students doing their clinical internship don’t always have time during lunch, so we’ll be doing it at the end of the day as well. The online office hours can get pretty busy sometimes. Perhaps we should do it for the bachelor’s too.”
But it’s not so simple, says Khattab. She cannot offer personal help to all 1100 students from the Dutch programme and 800 students from the English programme. “I’m happy to give everyone the sense that I’m always willing to be there for them, and they can always email me, but I can’t be there physically for everyone.”
7. ‘Check venue accessibility in advance’
Simply checking the classroom or lecture theatre is not enough, says Cramm from experience. She has spent time in a wheelchair herself. “The venues themselves are often not the problem. It’s the campus terrain.”
“I’m more about the personal approach myself”, says Cramm about the entire list from the Student Union. “Our intent is always to ask students: what do you need? We then address those needs as a team. I can recall one student who needed supporting software to complete exams, and the system just didn’t work, time and again. After a personal talk, it turned out that reading out the questions was an option too. It’s up to us as a university to organise these kinds of things in the background, so that students feel seen, welcome – and safe.”
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Monitoring venue accessibility is a job for the university and not for lecturers, Khattab believes. “There are limits to our responsibility. We can identify, communicate and assess students’ needs with them, but making lecturers responsible for checking accessibility is going too far. I can’t build a lift or a new entrance, no matter how much I would like to change things.”
8. ‘Choose your words carefully’
“I’ve learned that well-intentioned comments can come across as very passive-aggressive”, Moorman says. “‘Wow, your Dutch is really good’ can sound very condescending, and is often not a compliment.” At the Faculty of Medicine, lecturers can take workshops on how to give more inclusive lectures, which he took years ago. “I hear from more and more lecturers that they have taken them as well. At the bachelor’s and master’s, we are working hard to make the student population more diverse and inclusive.” For years, Moorman has been using the pronoun ‘she’ to refer to a doctor in general, to combat the notion that doctors should be men.
“I try to be aware of how I come across and what I say”, says Van den Dolder. “Sometimes it’s hard, I stop mid-sentence and ask myself: can I really say this? Then I think out loud and ask myself out loud, then ask what the students think. Like when I always refer to the masculine form of a word, for example. It’s something I’ve had to teach myself to do, because it does make you vulnerable as a lecturer. As a greeting, I increasingly use the neutral ‘hello students’.”
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9. ‘Acknowledge everybody's (visible and invisible) diversity’
“Visible and invisible diversity can be viewed quite broadly”, says Khattab. “Take the students’ participation grade, for example. Extroverted students shouldn’t get higher marks simply because they talk more.” Lecturers can help maintain the balance: “Take control of the discussion, and give the quieter students a chance to talk.”
One important aspect in recognising diversity is that every student can have a role model, no matter their skin colour, background or functional limitation, Moorman believes. “Diversity among lecturers is therefore also important.”
Cramm was reminded of her trip to London last summer. “Everywhere I went there were three toilet doors: men’s, women’s, and gender-neutral. Wherever I went to eat, you could order meat, fish, vegetarian and vegan dishes. Now that’s inclusive. Have an option for everybody, and don’t force everyone to adhere to one standard.”
10. ‘Make sure your lesson materials aren't exclusively Eurocentric, and continue to actively encourage new perspectives’
“I always encourage different perspectives, and talking about alternative perspectives is something I always do at the end of the master’s”, says Moorman about the last recommendation. “We talk about different views of medicine, and what it means to be sick. In the Netherlands, people who aren’t completely fighting fit are quickly labelled as ‘sick’. In China, people can also feel out-of-kilter, but they don’t take a pill straight away – instead they look at what might help, which can even be a certain kind of tea.”
Lecturers do say that the material is predominantly Eurocentric and western-oriented. But there is a way to introduce different perspectives to every subject, says Khattab. “Incorporate diversity by including a diverse range of human examples. An example of a leader doesn’t always have to be a white male. Nelson Mandela will do just as well.” A variety of examples can help to break through stereotypes, she says.