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Workshops help instructors facing challenges with identity and everyday bias in the classroom

Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning offers strategies to create a more inclusive and respectful learning environment as part of Diversity Week activities
March 21, 2017
Qiao Sun, associate dean of diversity and equity at the Schulich School of Engineering. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Qiao Sun, associate dean of diversity and equity at the Schulich School of Engineering. Photo by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

Valerie Pruegger from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Protected Disclosure, and Carol Berenson from the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, will be facilitating the Identity in the Classroom: Exploring Instructor Impact workshop on March 22, 2017. Photo by Joni Miltenberg

Valerie Pruegger from the Office of Diversity, Equity and Protected Disclosure, and Carol Berenson from the Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning, will be facilitating the Identity in the Classroom: Exploring Instructor Impact workshop on March 22, 2017. Photo by Joni Miltenberg 

“What does it means to have an increasingly diverse faculty? How do we as teachers and instructors grapple with our own identities?” asks Aruna Srivastava, associate professor from the Department of English and co-ordinator of the International Indigenous Studies program. “We often don't know how to do that in the classroom and we don't understand the impact of our identities.”

Carol Berenson, educational development consultant from the Taylor Institute, notes that “there is a growing body of research indicating that instructors associated with some groups (particularly based on gender and racial/ethnic/cultural identities) are differentially viewed in the classroom. leading to increased teaching challenges and biased evaluations.”

Srivastava draws on her own personal experience, “For example, I identify sometimes as a woman of colour — an aging woman of colour — with disabilities, but I also have a lot of authority and power as a professor. I don't think we often have permission to talk about these issues openly in the classroom or amongst ourselves.

“Talking about these subjects as instructors is important, particularly for those of us who have sometimes felt dispossessed. Remember that the important people are the students, who may be going through many of the same things as we are.”

Turn a challenge into an advantage

Qiao Sun is associate dean diversity and equity at the Schulich School of Engineering. She had long been accustomed to sometimes being the only woman in engineering classrooms in her native China but when she started teaching in a Canadian context, the added dimensions of language and culture brought new challenges. “Where I grew up, professors have absolute authority. You have respect — not earned — but by definition,” says Sun. “It was quite an adjustment to come here but I think I’ve made it work to my advantage.”

She recalls one meeting where she was the only woman in the room, “Sometimes I don’t always have the right words to articulate what I would like to say so I find myself being passive. But I sometimes I see the conversation going in a direction that I think is wrong and I know I need to speak out. I can say things that others cannot or will not and sometimes people are shocked and that is okay.”

Find community

Both Sun and Srivastava acknowledge the importance of finding a community of support to help overcome these challenges. Sun notes that “having a community that shares the challenge with you” is important and Srivastava recommends “finding other people who are experiencing or have experienced the same concerns.”

“We are working to create a culture of support and collaboration,” says Sun.

The Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning will offer two workshops for Diversity Week. “The great thing about these kinds of workshops at the TI is that people from across campus come to them. They are not discipline based. You learn other people are facing similar challenges and there are many ways of dealing with these challenges,” says Srivastava.  

Berenson notes that, “Given the internationalization and indigenization of our university campuses, the experiences of diverse faculty and students need to be addressed in order to ensure an equitable and effective teaching and learning environment for all.”  

Transformational learning: Getting in touch with everyday bias

Events around us are interpreted through a lens shaped by our beliefs and culture. This interpretive lens unknowingly constitutes a bias through which we view the world. Having a bias is seen as something "some people" have, yet, is inherent in our everyday actions. In this interactive workshop based on Howard Ross’ work, participants will learn to harness their biases to create actions that result in a more inclusive and respectful learning environment.

  • Facilitator: Frances Kalu (Taylor Institute), and Nazia Viceer and Janet de Groot (Equity and Professionalism Office)
  • March 21, 1-3 p.m.
  • Register here

Identity in the classroom: Exploring instructor impact

This interactive workshop is designed to engage participants to consider the potential impact of their identity on the learning environment and their interactions with students, discuss strategies to achieve credibility and boundaries in the classroom, and recognize how identity can be used as a source of strength and opportunity. It is geared to educators whose identities or credibility are challenged or whose expertise is undervalued, as well as those who hold societal power and privilege and wish to explore how that create particular classroom dynamics and advantages.

  • Facilitators: Carol Berenson (Taylor Institute) and Valerie Pruegger (Office of Diversity, Equity and Protected Disclosure)
  • March 22, 10-12 p.m.
  • Register here