From December 2022 to May 2023, a group comprising seven Faculty of Science instructors from six different departments met monthly to discuss ways of making their courses more inclusive. The Inclusive Teaching Initiative is part of the Faculty’s response to the McGill Provost’s Action Plan to Address Anti-Black Racism (ABR) 2020-2025 and the Strategic Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Plan 2020-2025.
Led by the Office of Science Education (OSE), the Initiative was developed in partnership with the Science Equity and Climate Committee (SECC) and Laura Nilson, Associate Dean for the Faculty of Science.
Inclusive pedagogies and curricular approaches
Nilson, Chair and founder of the SECC, was inspired to enact change upon reading the ABR plan, with its “Student Experience” pillar standing out, “particularly the goal to ‘support the development of inclusive pedagogies and curricular approaches that foster the learning and development of our diverse community and a sense of belonging for all students, without interfering with the freedom of individual instructors to determine the content of their courses,’” Nilson said.
“This goal has the potential to be impactful for students, and also valuable for individual instructors who feel strongly about making their classrooms as anti-racist, welcoming, and inclusive as possible.”
Having been selected by an organizational committee after submitting expressions of interest, the seven participating instructors were first interviewed to discern their goals and experiences. From those interviews, the organizers selected topics for discussion in the ensuing sessions, including syllabi, historical and social contexts related to their respective disciplines, and crafting more varied and inclusive assessments.
Addressing historical biases
“A lot of professors in the Faculty of Science are keenly interested in making their courses and their disciplines more inclusive,” said Diane Dechief, Science Communication Specialist at OSE. “These professors are well aware of the historical biases of their fields and want to engage with their students about these issues.”
“When we talk about inclusive and anti-racist classrooms, it is sometimes hard for professors to know exactly where and when points of exclusion happen,” Dechief continued. “As part of the Initiative, we were able to work with the Science Undergraduate Society to learn about some science students’ experiences and their suggestions.”
Dechief, Charlene Lewis-Sutherland, Senior Advisor, Equity and Anti-Racism Teaching and Learning, Andrea Miller-Nesbitt, Liaison Librarian, and Victoria Glynn, OSE Science Education Fellow and PhD candidate in the Department of Biology, constituted the organizing team for the pilot project.
Virginie Millien, Associate Professor of Biology and participant, found the Initiative vital for developing her curricula. As organizer of one of the Faculty’s key undergraduate opportunities, the Barbados Field Study Semester, a program designed in collaboration with the University of the West Indies (UWI), Millien had a particular interest in improving inclusivity in her courses. The program, which runs in the Fall semester, features co-taught courses with students from both McGill and UWI. “When there are such huge differences in my student groups, what they know, their backgrounds and expectations, how can we make the courses fully inclusive?” Millien asked.
During the Inclusive Teaching Initiative, Millien focused mainly on improving her syllabi. “The program helped a lot in the discussions alone, finding mechanisms and ways to bring inclusivity to the forefront of the classroom.”
But one doesn’t need to spend a semester in Barbados to experience diversity in the classroom. The Department of Chemistry’s Pallavi Sirjoosingh regularly teaches courses with up to 800-1000 students per semester. Sirjoosingh had been thinking about these large introductory courses when she came across the OSE Initiative.
“Prior research has shown that introductory chemistry courses (and STEM courses in general), unfortunately, serve as the exit points from pursuing STEM majors for students, especially minority students,” Sirjoosingh said. “There are some really subtle changes one can make in their syllabus or lecture or content that can have a larger than expected impact on the student experience and classroom atmosphere.”
Most participants mirrored Sirjoosingh’s goals, coming into the Initiative hoping to learn more about the student experience and sense of belonging, and their roles in “enhancing this sense of belonging by making our classes more inclusive,” said Sirjoosingh.
Collaboration key to learning
In creating the Initiative, the organizers wished to cultivate a sense of community between participants within which ideas could be exchanged freely and discussion could thrive.
“It was truly enlightening to hear the ideas and experiences of others; each person brought a unique and valuable perspective,” said Stephanie Weber, Associate Professor of Biology. “One of the hardest things about addressing EDI issues is that the problem feels so big, it’s hard to know where to start. During the Initiative, we had a number of discussions about small practical changes that faculty could make that would make the classroom more inclusive.”
“We all did not always agree, and it was great to have pushback and thoughtful critique on certain ideas,” said Sirjoosingh.
“Hearing the perspectives and experiences of the other participants was very insightful,” said Alia Sajjad, Faculty Lecturer in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. “Following our discussions, I took practical steps to make my classroom more inclusive, for example, by changing some of the language used in the course outlines, as well as in statistics word problems, to make both of these more inclusive and representative of the diverse cultural and gender identities of my students.”
“Collaboration was the key to the Initiative’s success,” said Jessica Flake, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology, who also participated in the Initiative. “Hearing the struggles, ideas, and interests, gave me ideas, gave me a place to share my own concerns and experiences, encouraged me that there is space for debate and learning amongst faculty.”
Inclusive Teaching Initiative 2.0
The Initiative is set to return this academic year, with lessons from the pilot project incorporated into the design. “We need to ensure that in future iterations, there is a lot of time for professors to talk with each other,” noted Dechief. “There was already a lot of conversation – sharing, comparing, asking questions, exchanging slides and syllabi. After our first two meetings, we extended our meetings by 30 minutes, and this was still not quite enough time.”
For its second iteration, the Initiative will build on these conversations and engage in wholly new ones. In parallel, Teaching and Learning Services (TLS) at McGill is also launching a similar project, a university-wide faculty learning community on fostering equitable and inclusive classroom discussions.