By Kaitlyn McCormick
In a national climate that some may argue has quickly grown polarized and politicized, institutions of higher education have made concepts of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) a quick selling point, Rider being no exception. Varying perspectives and topics in education like LGBTQ+ rights and critical race theory (CRT) have been criticized and even banned in different schools across the U.S., and the politicization of education has defined the importance of diversifying curriculum available to students, which has become an integral part of university discussion.
Piloting a new course
Part of the application of including more DEI threads in curriculum at Rider has included the freshman year experience course (FYS101), which started its first of a three-year pilot this past fall.
According to Cynthia Martínez, Spanish and Latinx studies professor as well as the faculty director of the course, the Fall 2022 program held nine sessions with around 160 students enrolled.
While a large part of the course includes preparing students for the college experience and acquainting them with resources and expectations, the course also serves as a foundation for instilling DEI elements of curriculum into incoming students: a main component of the course, according to Martínez, is “engaging with diversity and social justice.”
Last semester, all nine sections of the course read from the anthology “Tales of Two Americas,” a multi-genre piece dealing with topics of inequity in the U.S.
“That was the common read that all instructors used in their FYS course as a way to kind of bridge some topics related to diversity and social justice, and then each instructor kind of brought their own perspective, expertise, background into how they approach those conversations,” Martínez said.
While the course isn’t yet a requirement for first-year students, that is the goal for the end of the pilot.
“My academic background is in Latinx studies,” Martínez said. “For a long time, I’ve seen the value and the benefits of exploring experiences and narratives and concepts that… the kind of dominant majority in the U.S. is diverse.”
Reevaluating global perspectives
College of Arts and Science (CAS) Dean Kelly Bidle described Student Government Association (SGA)President Andrew Bernstein as the “student champion” of the request to administration to include more DEI concepts in academic curriculum, starting with the general education global and social perspectives requirement.
Bernstein, a senior political science major explained that part of the push to incorporate more DEI concepts into curriculum was to take a look at what courses may not fully fit the bill.
“We tried to figure out where some weaknesses might be, and I think the biggest one is in the [CAS] in terms of the courses listed under global perspectives and social perspectives, [they] don’t necessarily require students to take a course that is DEI centered … you can take a global perspective course that’s completely unrelated to anything that’s going to teach you a different perspective,” Bernstein said.
Though FYS is a new course prospect to Rider’s tackling of DEI, the slated elimination
and archival for certain courses by the university’s Prioritization Task Force, provost and president has received backlash.
The elimination of the American Studies program, which housed courses that serviced multiple majors across the university, drew concerns from the program’s director, Mickey Hess. He feared the absence of popular courses would provide less opportunities for students to learn directly about Black and diverse philosophies in their general education requirements.
Chief Diversity Officer Barbara J. Lawrence said that while the conversation surrounding course prioritization did not directly include her prior and during her 2021 joining to the university, DEI standards should and will be consulted in future curriculum decisions.
“I can say that moving forward, when decisions are made about courses and our students coming in, DEI will be in front because we are looking at what students are interested in,” Lawrence said. “We will definitely take that into consideration in course design, in co-curricular programming. We will work with faculty and staff to make sure that we are lifting up DEI more intentionally.”
DEI and education
While Martínez noted that the FYS course was currently open to CAS and business students, it may be possible for
first-year students in the College of Education to take the course in the future, according to the Chair of the Department of Teacher Education Susan Dougherty.
The College of Education has its own introductory course, EDU 106, that threads topics of DEI into the syllabi for young educators in training, according to Dougherty. The three-credit course, which is offered in two sessions, one for elementary education and one for secondary, focuses on the system and cultures of educating and schools.
“DEI is super important in schooling. It has so much to do with how successful individuals are in schools … we want to make sure that [education students] are prepared to make sure that all of their students are successful,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty pulled from her own experience as a professor of literary education to also draw attention to the importance of text in the classroom, calling on the theory of “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors,” from children’s literature researcher Rudine Sims Bishop.
“Books can either be a window for someone, it can be a mirror for someone else, and then potentially it could be a sliding door between people that are not from the same group or background or have the same experiences,” Dougherty explained.
The need for more ‘consistent bravery’
As conversations of DEI and CRT spring up around the country with more institutions enacting plans to diversify the perspectives engaged in curriculums, one professor at Rider is calling for what she calls more “consistent bravery” from the top down.
Sociology and criminology professor Sarah Trocchio, a critical scholar by training, is well versed in conversations of DEI with plenty of ideas for how those concepts be better embodied not only in curriculum, but by the university as a whole, and including courses like FYS101 are just one piece of the ongoing puzzle.
Trocchio said she wanted to “shout out” Martínez for being “at the helm” of the first-year seminar.
“I know that that has really intentionally integrated DEI-related themes, and I think that’s fabulous,” Trocchio said. “I also think that it can’t just be faculty members or just a few select staff members or just some really active students that are carrying this conversation. The responsibility is on our leadership to carry it … in all honesty, it seems like these conversations have just been brushed aside in favor of a very myopic concern for financial health as an institution.”
While the intention and plan to remain active and avoid stagnance in tackling issues of inclusion and diversity in curriculum is an ongoing effort, Bidle maintained that the commitment is one that she sees as “a university priority, period.”
‘It’s just the right thing to do’
Discussing a three-pronged approach to the need for DEI standards to be discussed, implemented and supported at Rider by its faculty, Lawrence maintained one major consideration – a moral obligation.
“The world is changing,” Lawrence said. “Most aspects of society, whether it has to do with legislation, whether it has to do with community development, whether it has to do with enhancing an economic system, requires an understanding of [DEI].”
She also noted that the student population at the university is changing, making it even more important to include DEI standards of practice, adding on the letter J to the initialism, standing for justice.
Outside of just focusing on course offerings and curriculum, faculty members have been provided with various training opportunities in inclusive pedagogy. She’s also most recently launched an online Chief Diversity Officer dialogue space and intends to commit to ongoing microaggression training for faculty after receiving student feedback.
Valuing diverse perspectives
At a time where sociopolitical conversations and implications are holding a more active presence in dialogue, many are recognizing the importance of carrying these concepts into various institutional contexts, like education.
Bernstein said, “I think it’s fairly obvious to say that certain perspectives have become even more in focus recently learning to appreciate the history of LGBTQ+ individuals is something that’s even more important now. … This kind of evolving social and political atmosphere that we’re in really sets the stage for what I think we should be learning about.”
Courses with built-in DEI components like the pilot FYS101 seminar were created with the intention of making these conversations more accessible to students and consciously bringing diverse perspectives into curriculum, but, as some like Trocchio have expressed, they cannot be the only ways DEI is being implemented.
Bernstein said, “It’s important to be able to understand people’s unique experiences and to be able to successfully work with them despite their unique differences.”