Glencora Borradaile

         Associate Professor & College of Engineering Dean's Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Oregon State University

February 25, 2016

Graduate Teaching on Diversity: Recap

Filed under: Silent Glen Speaks @ 11:30 pm
Tags: , ,

This review of the diversity & ethics class is much delayed.  Partly this is because in the last class I gave a survey to the students asking about their experiences in the class — it was an in depth and targeted student evaluation of teaching and I hate looking at these evaluations.  I think I always fear the worst.  Maybe due to some highly sexist comments from the past (“she looks better in a skirt”, I kid you not).

I shouldn’t have been so fearful — the surveys were taken very seriously and I learned a lot from going over them that I hope will shape a permanent course in our department.

I’ll try to summarize here:

What did you get from the course?

I asked several questions along the lines of what did you get from this course? The answers to these questions (*) helped me to uncover how I did in delivering on the pilot learning outcome:

  • Recognize difference, power and discrimination within social systems and their influence on people of diverse backgrounds both inside and outside their discipline.

A vast majority of the students reported an increased or new awareness of explicit and implicit biases in our perception of others along with the ability to better empathize with people who are different from themselves.  Many students reported that they would be a better ally to others experiencing discrimination and that they would have less fear in engaging and expressing oneself.  Several students commented on the ethics content of the class as well, that the online Responsible Conduct of Research modules were informative.  Based on this, I would give myself a B in delivering the learning outcome; I think I didn’t do a very good job on focusing on these issues within electrical engineering and computer science.

Many students commented on the soft skills they improved upon in the class: new mechanisms for group discussions, communication skills, reading skills.  A few students commented that the material and the way the class was delivered was ideal for improving on these skills, and I would agree!

Which readings were most helpful?

A majority of the students commented on the first-person narratives being most helpful, and I am not surprised.  I think I would like to add in some more ‘formal’ readings to give more broad context to the course material, but I would try to be very careful to keep the balance on the narratives.   A significant number of the students also commented on the reading Never Meant to Survive;  I think this was a great reading, but I think it stood out in students’ minds because there was a very focused deep reading assignment that went with it.  I would like to do something like this for every reading (or group of readings).

Several students commented on the fact that there was too much reading.  Although the surveys were anonymous, based on their other comments, these were English-language learners that were finding the reading burdensome; I am not sure how best to react to that.  Some of the same students reported that their reading skills improved, so perhaps it is a hurdle that is worth having.

How did the classroom mechanisms work for you?

If you’ve been reading these posts, then you know I made an effort to have the classroom be interactive as much as possible and I experimented with different ways to do this.  I asked the students which classroom mechanisms were most helpful, most enjoyable, least helpful and most challenging to them.  For details on these mechanisms, please read my earlier posts. Some patterns that stick out based on this:

  • A majority of the students found the small group discussions to be helpful, for multiple reasons (hearing other students ideas, not having to speak in front of the entire class, practicing communication skills, etc).
  • Many students found the spokescouncil discussions challenging and I think this reflects students being pushed out of their comfort zones.  Other students found this helpful and enjoyable.  I think it is definitely worth trying this again (with more than one hour to hold it).
  • Many students found the silent discussion to be least helpful or challenging.  The detailed comments reveal that many students had a hard time with the questions used for this.  As I reported earlier, I felt at the time that some better readings would hopefully prepare the students to better engage in these questions.  A few students commented that they liked the silent discussion because they felt more comfortable expressing themselves in writing than in speaking.  As we try to accommodate different learning styles (e.g. oral vs. visual) I think it would be good to use a silent discussion again to meet the needs of students who would enjoy this method of communication.  I think the silent discussion could be improved by having a post-assignment that requires students to synthesize the net comments made, to try and have the students engage more deeply in the listening side of this discussion.
  • The reaction to the round-robin discussion was mixed.  Those who liked it, liked it because it helped them learn the material better (the vocabulary for diversity) and that it forced them to talk to a lot of different students.  Those who didn’t found the task not that deep.  I think there is a split along comfort in English here …
  • Finally, the lecture and faculty panel evoked rather amusing responses.  Students enjoyed that they were hearing from other people and from experts.  Many students commented on how they could sit back and not engage — and there were students who liked that, and students who didn’t like that.  I’m not surprised.

What would you like to see?

I really enjoyed reading the students’ suggestions here.  Some topics that were mentioned (some more than once): income inequality, religious bias, non-conforming genders, ethics of human and animal experimentation.  I would love to cover more breadth of discrimination as highlighted here!

A few students asked for more experiential learning — there is a great exercise that illustrates structural discrimination before learning about structural discrimination that would be a great early-in-the-quarter exercise, for example.  One student asked for better moderation of discussions (which I would love to work on too!) and another asked for more positive content, which … well, would be challenging.  But perhaps it would be good to talk about the response to discrimination from large social movements, like Black Lives Matter, to see that one can fight against this.

Another few students asked for an introduction to US culture, which left me stymied. How?  But then another student’s comments came to the rescue: have a classroom discussion with US students comparing their culture to international students (and vice versa).  Again, this would be a great way to start the class, I think.  Along these lines, one student asked for more mixed group activities; they noticed as I did that students tended to cluster along cultural lines for small group discussions.  I suppose, again, one would want to allow this sometimes but that it might be good to mix the mechanism up and force students to talk with students they normally wouldn’t.


Several students asked for some true orientation content.  Things like information about funding, what grad classes are like, a campus tour!, panels with senior graduate students.  I’m going to chew on all this information for a while, but I have been thinking about proposing a 3 credit (3 hours per week) class that takes the place of our graduate seminar, TA training and this class that would allow for the time for orientation content, soft skill development, and more in-depth coverage of the material.

(*) Specifically:
What were the most useful skills or tools that you learned in this class?
How will what you learned in this class prepare you for your time here as a graduate student and your future career?
How has this class affected (or how will this class affect) your own personal behaviors and actions? Why?
If you were trying to convince a fellow student to take this class, what would you say?

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