Crafting equitable curricula with care

Educators at Queen’s speak to the need to decolonize and diversify learning, and how they’ve worked to accomplish that goal

Six professors across three different faculties spoke with The Journal.
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Alana Butler believes that as classrooms from kindergarten to post-secondary become more diverse, it’s crucial for teachers to consider the unique needs of all students—especially racialized students. 
 
“Teachers, in [the faculty of] education in particular, have a responsibility towards cultural competence. I think that it is part of the duty of care to students to be able to reflect their cultural and racial identities in your teaching practices,” the assistant professor in the Faculty of Education told The Journal.
 
A core aspect of addressing white supremacy in universities is addressing how curricula is delivered, whose voices are privileged within courses, and how classrooms are made safer for vulnerable groups.
 
Jenn Carpenter, director of the Office of Global Health, is currently working to develop courses that better reflect a wider range of ways of knowing, rather than just western European ones. 
 
“I’ve really tried to do some reflection on colonization and the fact that colonization still very much exists today in our structures, in our healthcare, and in our educational systems.” 
 
Meredith Chivers, associate professor in the Department of Psychology, is excited that she’s seeing a similar shift in psychology, which has historically been driven by one dominant perspective. 
 
“[If] our collective goal as psychological scientists is to make discoveries and advance knowledge about human psychology, we need to ensure that we are, in fact, representing all humans in our science,” she said.
 
The Journal spoke with six professors across three different faculties about how they would envision more equitable curricula, as well as the efforts they’ve already put in to give life to these ideas.

The impact of white supremacist curricula

Before students come to Queen’s, they have likely gone through a Canadian education system deeply rooted in anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism by privileging white European worldviews and ways of knowing while ignoring others entirely. 
What we’re truly fighting is a fight against white supremacy. Nobody calls it that, because we’re afraid of that term, even though that’s what it is. Our curriculum is very reflective of that.
According to Butler, this creates a negative flight pathway which drives internalized racism in minority students. That acts to either deter them from further education or disconnect them from their race and culture. 
 
Recent reports released by Carl James, professor in the Faculty of Education at York University, have further confirmed this is the case in Ontario.
 
This system also shelters white students from learning about how white supremacy and colonialism impacts their worldviews, making them more likely to perpetuate racism in the future.
 
 
The colonial nature of our school system is clear to Lindsay Morcom, associate professor in the Faculty of Education.
 
“When we’re talking about bringing in dealing with anti-Black racism, dealing with Islamophobia […] what we’re truly fighting is a fight against white supremacy. Nobody calls it that, because we’re afraid of that term, even though that’s what it is. Our curriculum is very reflective of that.”
80 per cent of data in psychological science was based on WEIRD samples, but WEIRD people represent only 12 per cent of the global population.
Morcom noted how this white supremacy seeps into the voices brought into the classroom—in readings, visual material, and ways of knowing. Whiteness is the norm. This can often come down to elements as simple as only studying the works of white scholars. 
 
“A lot of times things like [Michel] Foucault and [Allan] Bloom are just taught like they’re absolute truth, and people don’t stop to question the fact that they’re still very much couched in culture, but it’s culture that gets erased because it’s so dominant.”
 
Whether it be in STEM or the humanities, the authors often viewed as foundational come from a narrow range of backgrounds. 
 
The term for this is ‘epistemic violence,’ coined by theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and furthered by philosopher Kristie Dot. It involves refusing and concealing the perspectives of vulnerable peoples, viewing the knowledge and ways of knowing of a dominant group as inherently superior. 
 
Chivers said psychology is no different.
 
“Psychological science has long been criticized for its biased knowledge base. That is theory about human psychology based on data gathered from “WEIRD” samples; people who are Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic.” 
 
Chivers feels it’s time for this Eurocentric approach to take a bow in order to make way for a more inclusive perspective, as it’s not adequately representative of what the world looks like.
 
“According to the American Psychological Association in 2010, 80 per cent of data in psychological science was based on WEIRD samples, but WEIRD people represent only 12 per cent of the global population.”
 
Pushes for curricula which better address the needs of marginalized students have not been absent in the past at Queen’s, but they’ve been inconsistent, according to Michelle Gibson, assistant dean (curriculum) for Undergraduate Medical Education. 
 
The Faculty of Health Sciences has always had a mandate to address diversity and has seen positive initiatives in the past in the area—like releasing content aimed at better treating Queer patients—but these initiatives were usually done as one-offs and were often driven by the work of students. 

Changing the ways we teach

One of the initiatives undertaken by the Faculty of Health Sciences this past summer involved compiling a database of images pertaining to treating people of different races. When it comes to something like a skin rash, for example, medical students are underexposed to what illnesses look like on darker skin tones.
 
Gibson recognized that initiative as one of many needing to be pushed forward as biases come to light.
We’re in a time and place where we really need to think about whose voices it is that we are centering and where those perspectives are coming from.
In terms of recognizing those biases, while the burden shouldn’t be on professors or students of colour to expose where curricula fall short, diverse classrooms lead to diversity of perspective and allow for students of colour to better relate to the material they’re learning. 
 
That’s just one reason to give scholars of colour the space they deserve at institutions like Queen’s, as well as in elementary and secondary education, Morcom said.
 
“Most children of colour probably won’t have a teacher who is co-ethnic with them,” Morcom said. “And we know, particularly for Black and Indigenous children, even having one co-ethnic teacher as a child has serious, measurable implications for school achievement later in life.”
 
Thashika Pillay, assistant professor in the Faculty of Education, is cognizant of the barriers in place which prevent racialized folks from entering academia and is working to amplify their voices.  
 
In her classroom, whenever she is about to cite the work of a white man, Pillay tries to find and amplify the work of a scholar of colour instead. 
Because Indigenous people have been here forever, Indigenous knowledge should be treated differently and should be included in a different way.
“It’s not to say that there aren’t white scholars doing interesting and important work, but we’re in a time and place where we really need to think about whose voices it is that we are centering and where those perspectives are coming from.”
 
Morcom said around three quarters of the resources used in her class are purposely chosen Indigenous scholars or scholars of colour. She also noted the importance of separating Indigeneity from other considerations regarding minority students. 
 
“We need to fight battles together because there’s an issue in curriculum—eurocentrism and white supremacy—but understanding as well that because Indigenous people have been here forever, Indigenous knowledge should be treated differently and should be included in a different way.”
 
Carpenter, in a new course she’s developing, is working on a module that would help students search grey literature—research produced outside traditional academic channels, typically by individuals and groups outside of the dominant culture. 
 
“So much of the stories and histories that we would want to learn about aren’t published in the mainstream journals, and so it’s a skill to try and find those stories.”
 
Chivers works with the Queen’s Sexuality and Gender Lab team, which strives to make research as inclusive as possible. She has also adapted her seminars in the past year to examine the intersectional implications on racialized and gender minorities when studying sexuality and gender. 
 
In her clinical psychology course, students have the opportunity to explore the mental health of minoritized people and the impacts of racism, classism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. 
 
“My goal is to encourage students to ask the question ‘What role does inequity play in mental health?’ when they are learning about mental disorders.”
 
Crafting equitable curricula will also involve more large-scale change. That will involve completely rethinking aspects of education largely taken for granted. 
 
That can start with assessments, which by their nature—according to Morcom, Butler, and Pillay—are used more as a ranking system than a feedback or growth mechanism. That can be discouraging for students of colour, or any students facing barriers to meeting the rigid deadlines and deliverables that come with university life; not everyone is able to or wants to learn in the same ways, and a grading system that judges all work by the same rigid standards neglects this. 
 
In Pillay’s classroom, the pandemic has allowed her to rethink the nature of assessments. This year, in her grad course, she’s adopted consistent verbal feedback throughout the semester. For the first time, she hasn’t had a single student refute a mark they received. 
 
Morcom’s policy is that if a student doesn’t get an A the first time they submit an assingment, they can return it to her for feedback and resubmit until they do. 
 
“Why would I want them coming out of my class knowing less than 80 per cent of what I want them to know?”

Assessing the effectiveness of change

Over the past few months, Queen’s has initiated numerous task forces across faculties relating to Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) similar to the one formed by the Smith School of Business as a result of public pressure from students. 
 
The purpose of these groups includes adopting changes in curricula to form more equitable classrooms, but many are in the infancy of evaluating whether these changes are actually effective. 
 
Gibson acknowledged this shortfall within equity efforts in the Faculty of Health Sciences, which is actively seeking expertise from the Dean’s action table and other sources to create evaluation criteria for EDI initiatives 
moving forward. 
 
The faculty also provides an anonymous portal where students can submit feedback about their experiences. Gibson felt it was important for faculties to provide a pathway for students to express frustration without having to confront individuals who may have acted in a discriminatory manner. 
 
Students in the Faculty of Education are also able to make an anonymous complaint through the EDI committee. 
 
Additionally, students across the University can complete evaluations of their learning experiences for each course they take. Unfortunately, these surveys, due to their anonymous nature, can often be a source of racism for educators of colour. 
 
 
These kinds of mechanisms are also dependant on students making the effort to call out instances of racism when they see it, which can mean painfully slow change that depends on students to create equitable environments.
 
Butler pointed out that this burden shouldn’t fall on racialized students. 
 
Professors, regardless of the faculty or courses they teach within, will have to make an active effort to assess whether their equity efforts are impacting students positively, and adapt accordingly when they’re not. 
 
To aid students of colour, professors should ensure the classroom is a space where they can learn without feeling attacked or tokenized according to their racial identity. 
 
For white students, as well as non-Black and non-Indigenous students of colour, an equitable environment will mean accepting a level of discomfort when bringing in long-erased perspectives to curricula.  
The students may not always be comfortable in the classroom as we’re doing this learning, and I had to come to terms that that was okay.
For Pillay, this shift has been difficult but necessary to cope with. 
 
“The students may not always be comfortable in the classroom as we’re doing this learning, and I had to come to terms that that was okay. Over time, they would come to understand and appreciate the process that we went through.”
 
In the same vein, students will have the best chance at learning difficult material when they have a positive relationship with their professors. It’s important that they’re able to be held accountable for things like racial bias without prioritizing their guilt over personal growth. 
 
“We work really hard to develop meaningful relationships with the students, because that needs to be at the basis of hard learning.” Morcom said. “If I present them with this kind of knowledge and they don’t trust me to be open about what they’re experiencing, and they don’t feel welcome in my classroom, then I’m not going to be able to get through.”

 

Doing the work

Since last summer, following the work of student activists that shed light on issues of racism at Queen’s, much of the work being done within EDI has been downloaded to racialized students and educators. More equitable classrooms will require a wider effort, and people can no longer expect this crucial work to be done solely by 
the vulnerable. 
 
If you’re speaking about a community, or a population, you need the input from that community or population, but the last thing you want to do is tax their time more without proper compensation.
In refreshing GLPH 271, Global and Population Health, Carpenter started by attending workshops through the Centre for Teaching and Learning to learn how to decolonize curricula. 
 
Through these workshops, she met Lindsay Brant, educational developer (Indigenous curriculum and ways of knowing) with the Centre for Teaching and Learning. Brant has helped inform changes to these courses, with a focus on centering the voices of Indigenous peoples. 
 
“We’ve worked really hard on using examples from marginalized communities and also bringing in learnings and teachings from different communities,” Carpenter said. “All the way along, almost every single word that goes into the modules, [Brant] has helped us frame them in the best possible way.” 
 
At the same time, Carpenter recognized the importance of not over-relying on faculty and students from marginalized groups to inform initiatives. 
 
“If you’re speaking about a community, or a population, you need the input from that community or population, but the last thing you want to do is tax their time more without proper compensation.”
 
Gibson acknowledged that it may be intimidating to start this process but said it is currently much easier to ask for help than it was a year ago, though it’s important not to heavily rely on the help of the same few people—particularly racialized educators. 
If you don’t do it then you’re very explicitly showing your commitment does not extend to all of your students and does not extend to BIPOC communities.
As a white, cisgender, queer woman, Chivers echoed the need to use her own position of power to increase representation in curricula and in research. For those getting started on the path of self-education, she recommended students should first look at the visual and textual materials being used in classes.
 
“If humans are a necessary part of your field and represented in your teaching materials, are the examples, cases, knowledge, etcetera, about those humans representative? If not, make changes.”
 
Butler would like to see more people taking this initiative and doing the work on their own. This means taking advantage of the resources and readings available to them at Queen’s, like the anti-oppression guide made available by the Concurrent Education program. 
 
Pillay emphasized that this is no longer optional, but a requirement for educators as classrooms become more diverse and demands grow to dismantle white supremacist curricula. 
 
“There’s no excuse not to do it because if you don’t do it then you’re very explicitly showing your commitment does not extend to all of your students and does not extend to BIPOC communities.”

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