Diversity In My Classroom

Yesterday the University of Mary Washington held its first #diversityacademy organized by Leah Cox, Special Assistant to President for Diversity and Inclusion. It was wondeful to spend a day with my colleagues reflecting on where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we might be going (or want to go) in terms of promoting diversity in our curriculum and our culture at the University of Mary Washington. I learned quite a bit about the history of diversity issues that dated even before I came here in a tenure track position more than 15 years ago. The program included a discussion about the old Race and Gender across-the-curriculum general education requirements and about the multi-section First Year Seminar Race and Revolution, presentations from the UMW Center for International Education, CAPS, Disability Resources among others, and from the University of Maryland’s Executive Director of the Office of Diversity Education and Compliance, Gloria Bouis.  I’m sorry to have missed the final presentation about the Campus Climate survey at the end of the day, which actually leads into my own reflections on diversity in my classroom.

In my time here, I’ve noticed an important and positive change in the diversity of my classroom. While 15 years ago there might have been one or two Latino native or heritage speakers of Spanish in my upper level courses (5-10%), now that number is more like 25-30%, or more. While the overall Latino population at UMW is not nearly this high, I have found the Latino students in my classes–some majors and some not–have brought an enthusiasm and unique perspective to the courses I teach that has enhanced the learning environment for all of us–native and non-native speakers alike!. These students also have their special challenges. Many are working their way through college, they often have family responsibilities that force them to miss class at times. Their comfort with informal speaking activities is often countered by their trepidation at more formal writing assignments and oral presentations. Overall, the addition of these students has been a net positive for all of us, and I am so happy to be teaching all of my students at this time. But I also hear rumblings from some of my colleagues about the quality of student that UMW has  been accepting of late–pointing to our high acceptance rate, our large proportion of in-state and transfer students, and contrasting this to the “good old days” when more of our students were from out-of-state, of a higher academic caliber (on paper at least), and, while no one states this overtly, ,mostly upper middle class and white! While it is hard for me to tease out all the reasons for our change in student demographic (perhaps this is what I missed in yesterday’s presentation), and certainly we have a long way to go as an institution before our faculty and student body more closely mirror the population of the state of Virginia, I firmly believe that as a professor at a small public institution, it’s my job to provide the best academic experience I can for the students in my class, whoever they are. What a privilege to be able to work with these students, at this institution, at this moment, and have a small part in their education!

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